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Apr 21, 2009 at 09:20pm IST

Ensure safety of innocent Tamils, India to SL

New Delhi/Patna: With the Sri Lankan Army stepping up offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that has vowed never to surrender, India on Tuesday conveyed its concerns and appealed to Colombo to ensure the safe exit of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone.

"I have appealed to the Sri Lankan authorities to facilitate the return of civilians to a secure zone," External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in Patna.

The Sri Lankan government had asked the LTTE to surrender by Tuesday noon. But the rebels said they would "never surrender", leading to an escalation of offensive by the troops against the rebels.

ON SAFE GROUND: In this photo released by the Lankan army on Tuesday, Tamil civilians escape from LTTE areas.

The Sri Lankan Defence Ministry said over 49,000 civilians had crossed over to government-controlled areas by Tuesday evening.

"The LTTE has not responded to the government's call to surrender, so we will continue our offensive to rescue the civilians," military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said in Colombo.

According to the Sri Lankan government, at least 30,000 civilians were still living inside the no-fire zone. But the UN says over 60,000 civilians are holed up in the NFZ.

In New Delhi, Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma expressed concern over the situation in Sri Lanka and urged the Sri Lankan government to ensure the safety of Tamil civilians trapped in the war zone.

Sharma also asked the Sri Lanka government to be alive to the humanitarian aspects of the Tamil civilians and underlined the need for addressing genuine nationalistic aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils.

In an interview to a TV channel, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the LTTE as "a terrorist organisation" and its chief V Prabhakaran as "a proclaimed offender".

"The LTTE is a terrorist organisation. Prabhakran is a proclaimed offender. That position has not changed," Manmohan Singh said.

Manmohan Singh was reacting to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's controversial remarks in an interview to another news channel on Sunday in which he said the LTTE is not a terrorist organisation and Prabhakaran "is my friend and not a terrorist".

Subsequently, however, Karunanidhi said his remarks were twisted and taken out of context.

The Indian government is closely watching the situation in Sri Lanka and is in constant touch with Colombo over the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the island nation. India's Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alok Prasad is updating the External Affairs Ministry on the ground situation in Sri Lanka.

The Congress party, which leads the ruling coalition in New Delhi, also urged the Sri Lankan government to ensure "cessation of hostility" and allow Tamil civilians to move out of the conflict zone.

"The Congress is deeply concerned about the fate of innocent Sri Lankan Tamils. We appeal the Sri Lankan government to ensure cessation of hostility and allow the innocent Tamils to move safely from the conflict zone to no-fire zone," Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan said in New Delhi.

The Congress spokesperson was responding to a telegram from Karunanidhi to the Central Government earlier in the day asking it to issue an ultimatum to Sri Lanka for "an immediate and permanent ceasefire" in its military offensive against the Tamil Tigers.

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