Colombo: Sri Lanka on Monday gave the Tamil rebels 24 hours to surrender after thousands of civilians fled the war zone when troops breached an earthen fortification blocking their exit route, the military said.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa told reporters that there were about 35,000 people waiting to leave the military-controlled area. "With the influx of people, we have given a final warning to Prabhakaran and his terrorist group to surrender to the government forces within 24-hours from 12 noon," said defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella, referring to Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
"Thereafter will be a military course of action. That is the best option," he told reporters at the Air Force battle management centre in Colombo. Live footage taken from an unmanned aerial vehicle and beamed into the operations centre showed thousands of people thronging around temporary reception centres set up by the army less than a kilometre outside the no-fire zone. The military said three suicide bombers had attacked thousands of Tamil civilians.
"At least 17 civilians, including women and children, have been killed and 200 people injured from the cowardly suicide attacks," said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara.
A wall of earth had blocked the widest land link to the coastal strip where Sri Lanka's military has surrounded the LTTE rebels with the goal of crushing them and ending a civil war that has raged since 1983 and is now Asia's longest-running.
"Troops captured the earth bund and so far 5,000 people have been rescued. It is still going on," Nanayakkara earlier said. The no-fire zone is a 17-square-km (6.5-sq-mile) area of coconut groves, where the LTTE separatists are fighting their last stand from among tens of thousands of civilians they have held there by force.
The military said Monday's exodus of civilians was the largest in a single day. An LTTE female suicide bomber in February blew herself up at a refugee reception centre, killing at least 28 people and wounding nearly 100 others.
But that has not stopped the exodus of people: around 70,000 have fled LTTE areas since January. The Sri Lankan government has been under heavy Western pressure to call a ceasefire to protect people in the no-fire zone.
The LTTE has rejected all international calls to let them leave and insists civilians are staying by choice. Sri Lanka has rejected further calls for a truce after the expiration of a 48-hour pause last week, saying the Tigers only used it to bolster their defences and make it harder for people to escape. The state-run Daily News said 15,000 people had fled on Monday.