Sri Lanka's war grinds on despite UN calls

Fighting in Sri Lanka's war showed no signs of abating today despite strong words from Barack Obama and the UN Security Council, with both sides refusing to budge in the waning days of a 25-year conflict.

The Security Council and Obama on Wednesday urged the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to surrender and free tens of thousands of civilians they are holding, and the military to stop shelling people and refrain from using heavy weapons.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said fighting today had blocked it for a third day from offloading a cargo of relief supplies and ferrying out sick and wounded people.

"The situation is becoming desperate with the fighting continuing intensely and uninterrupted," ICRC spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne said in Colombo. A Red Cross worker was killed in fighting on Wednesday, the third this year.

Late on Wednesday, US President Obama at the White House warned the "humanitarian crisis could turn into a catastrophe," as fighting intensified and Asia's longest modern war headed to its final act.

Reports that hundreds were killed in attacks on a makeshift clinic in the 2.5 square km (1 mile) of remaining LTTE territory, for which both sides blamed the other, prompted the Security Council to make its first formal statement this year.

The UN body said it "strongly condemned the LTTE for its acts of terrorism over many years" and voiced "grave concern" over reports of heavy military shelling and the dire condition of innocent people trapped between the foes.

The statements, which diplomats said were aimed at turning up the heat on the warring parties to protect civilians in dire straits, met with no change in position by either side.

NO TRUCE, NO SURRENDER

Sri Lanka again ruled out any further truce and insisted troops were only using small arms, while applauding the calls for the LTTE to surrender and recognition of its right to combat terrorism on its own soil.

"We will cease operations simultaneously when the LTTE lays down arms and surrenders, there will be no need of conducting operations to free the civilians," Mahinda Samarasinghe, disaster management and human rights minister, told Reuters.

He again said troops were not using heavy weapons as they worked to free the remaining people trapped in a narrow and sweltering coastal strip packed with makeshift tents.

The Tigers' political head, B. Nadesan, in a statement said the LTTE supported a permanent ceasefire but ruled out laying down arms which he called a "protective shield."

"Tamils earnestly look forward to President Barack Obama to lead the humanitarian intervention," he said, accusing the United Nations of holding back in bringing about a truce.

He made no reference to Obama's statement that called the LTTE's use of civilians as forced recruits and human shields "deplorable" nor the call to lay down arms.

The Tigers, on US, EU, Canadian and Indian terrorist lists, have vowed no surrender in their fight for a separate nation for Sri Lankan minority Tamils, which began in the 1970s and erupted into full-scale civil war in 1983.

Their fighters carry out suicide attacks and are reported to wear cyanide capsules to take in case of capture.

The increasing allegations of civilian deaths has prompted more and more demonstrations by expatriate Tamils around the world and vandalism against several Sri Lankan embassies.

Two Sri Lankan Tamils on a month-long hunger strike were taken to hospital in Paris yesterday, after roughly 400 people blocked traffic to protest against the war.

Even as the world body and Obama spoke, fighting was raging. Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said 19 rebel bodies were recovered overnight after what he called close-quarter combat by small groups.

Getting a clear picture of the battlefield is nigh impossible, since nearly all outsiders are barred from it and both sides have repeatedly distorted accounts of events there to suit their version of the story.

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