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Apr 27, 2009 at 10:33am IST

War-torn Sri Lanka facing humanitarian crisis

Colombo: As the Sri Lankan army encircles the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), aid groups are raising concern about the estimated 50,000 civilians still trapped in a war zone.

With defeat staring at its face, the LTTE is on the backfoot and called for a ceasefire on Sunday, but the Sri Lankan government refused to accept the offer with the army claiming it is just six km away from the last LTTE bastion.

In a statement posted on its website the LTTE said, "In the face of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and in response to the calls made by the UN, EU, the governments of India and others, the LTTE has announced a unilateral ceasefire."

In a terse statement Defence Secretary Gothbaya Rajapakse said, "That is a joke. They were not fighting with us, they were running from us. There is no need of a ceasefire. They must surrender."

The army claims to have encircled the six square kilometre area where LTTE supremo V Prabhakaran is holding out.

Senior officers believe Prabhakaran's health may rule out escape by semi-submersible craft although his son Charles Anthony may have already escaped.

There have been speculations that LTTE hard core cadres have been committing mass suicide.

As the fighting becomes more intense, concern is rising over at least 20,000 civilians being held at gunpoint by the LTTE with many young boys being forcibly taken away to fight.

The Sri Lankan government said close to 2 lakh were now in internment camps it had set up outside the no-fire zone or were emerging from the combat area.

But the conditions in the camps are not known as the government is not allowing international relief agencies to enter the war zone.

United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes called on President Rajapakse to get him to relent on the issue but there has been no breakthrough so far.

"As you can imagine we are extremely worried with the fact that there is still a meaningful number of people trapped in the battle area. All the attempts to have humanitarian pause and the LTTE letting these people go failed. So these people are still trapped," said Holmes.

Stocks of food and water are known to have run out with the LTTE claiming starvation faces people still in the area under its control and says the ceasefire will help supplies to come through.

But the government scents victory and would prefer to press ahead and bring an end to Asia's longest running insurgency.