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Surrender or you die, Tamil Tigers warned

The Tamil Tigers declared a unilateral ceasefire yesterday, but Sri Lanka dismissed it as a "joke" and said only a surrender would stop troops from finishing the last battle in Asia's longest modern war.

The Tigers' truce declaration came as the UN's top humanitarian chief was in the Indian Ocean island to press for the protection of tens of thousands of people trapped in the apparent final conventional battle of a war that started in 1983.

The Tigers have offered a ceasefire repeatedly as the military juggernaut has pushed them to the brink of defeat, but have refused international calls to free stranded civilians, whom witnesses say are kept from leaving by deadly force.

"In the face of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and in response to the calls made by the UN, EU, the governments of India and others, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has announced a unilateral ceasefire," an LTTE statement said.

Sri Lanka's defence secretary, the top civilian official in charge of the military and the President's brother, laughed at the truce declaration. "That is a joke. They were not fighting with us, they were running from us. There is no need of a ceasefire. They must surrender. That is it," Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Colombo has long said the LTTE must either surrender or face annihilation. "We are of the view that only such a ceasefire can end the humanitarian crisis and help avert the long-term impact of this crisis on the region and on the peoples of the island," the LTTE statement said.

It made no mention of surrender, nor of releasing the people still inside the battle zone, whom the rebels say are being killed in Sri Lankan military assaults. The military denies targeting civilians, and says the LTTE is hiding behind them as a human shield.

Diplomatic pressure on the government has risen sharply to protect the welfare of civilians held by the LTTE in fighting, even after 109,000 fled en masse when troops blasted an earthen barricade on Monday blocking entry and exit to the rebel area.

In his second trip to Sri Lanka in as many months, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes met senior government officials to discuss the crisis.