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Apr 21, 2009 at 12:53pm IST

Thousands flee Lanka war zone

Colombo: Tens of thousands of civilians fled Sri Lanka's northern war zone in a record exodus ahead of the government's deadline on Tuesday for separatist Tamil rebels (the LTTE) there to surrender, officials said.

More than 39,000 civilians arrived at military checkpoints on Monday, within hours of a military operation that saw Sri Lankan soldiers break through a barrier that the Tamil Tiger rebels had erected to defend their ever-shrinking slice of territory along the northern coast.

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The number of fleeing civilians on Monday was the largest in a single day, and that rate was expected to increase Tuesday as more people made their way out, said military spokesman Brig Udaya Nanayakkara said.

THEY WANT OUT: In this Lankan army pic, ethnic Tamil civilians seen at govt-controlled areas in Putumattalan.

The government issued a 24-hour deadline on Monday for the cornered rebels to surrender or face a final assault — a signal that the insurgents may be on the verge of total defeat after 25 years of rebellion. They did not respond to the ultimatum as the Tuesday noon (0630 GMT) deadline approached.

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Meanwhile, the sheer number of fleeing civilians made it clear the government had vastly underestimated the number of those caught in the fighting.

Aid groups have said in recent weeks that more than 100,000 civilians were stranded in the war zone, while the government put the number at about 40,000, roughly the number that crossed over Monday.

More than 4,500 civilians have been killed in the past three months, according to U.N. estimates. The U.N. Children's Fund said it fears for the safety of children still trapped in the war zone if fighting continues and the rebels refuse to allow people to leave.

"With this latest surge in fighting, our greatest fear is that the worst is yet to come," said Daniel Toole, the agency's South Asia director.

The U.N. and others have called for a negotiated truce to allow civilians to leave the dwindling, rebel-held enclave.

But the government has rejected such calls, saying it is on the verge of crushing the rebels and putting an end to the Asia's longest-running civil war.

The rebels have fought for an independent homeland for the country's ethnic minority Tamils 70,000. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

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