Sri Lankan troops advanced on the Tamil Tigers yesterday and 5,000 civilians fled the shrinking war zone, signalling a military finish to Asia's longest modern war despite Western condemnation and calls for a negotiated end.
With an apparent end to Sri Lanka's 25-year separatist conflict in sight, the UN human rights chief backed calls for an independent inquiry into possible war crimes and human rights violations by both sides.
The Tigers face certain destruction by overwhelming firepower and force, and Sri Lanka wants to ensure the rebels do not escape from the jaws of defeat, as they have done at previous times during the war that began in 1983.
"Our staff are witnessing an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe," said Pierre Krahenbuhl, the operations director of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"No humanitarian organisation can help them in the current circumstances. People are left to their own devices."
The military said 5,000 people escaped yesterday from the 2.5 square-kilometre stretch of land that is held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), following the 3,765 who fled under rebel fire across a lagoon on Thursday, some of them floating to the other side on inflated tyre tubes.
Signs that the LTTE is becoming desperate are growing. "We have heard that the LTTE is making its last calls to the diaspora, saying they expect to be killed," a diplomat in Colombo told Reuters on condition of anonymity. The family of Soosai, the nom de guerre of the Tigers' naval wing chief, were captured trying to flee in a boat with $5,000 (£3,200) in cash, the navy said.
The chief of staff of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, Vijay Nambiar, was due in Sri Lanka today to discuss the humanitarian situation.
Britain has called for an inquiry into human rights violations and the EU is due on Monday to consider a statement on the issue.
The UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, said yesterday that she supported an inquiry. Ms Pillay, an ethnic Tamil from South Africa, warned both sides two months ago that they may have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity. Sri Lanka's government called the accusations a "cynical game of political shadow-boxing" to save the LTTE from defeat.
The Tigers, who are on terrorist lists across the world, have vowed no surrender in their fight for a separate nation for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils which began in the 1970s and erupted into full-scale civil war in 1983.