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Sri Lanka 'takes last rebel patch'.

5/16/2009 2:49:05 AM

Sri Lankan troops have captured the last patch of coastline held by the separatist Tamil Tigers, according to a senior military source.

Two army divisions fighting along the coastline from the southern and northern ends of the conflict zone linked up on Saturday morning, the official said.

"The Tigers still have a few square kilometres of land, but not the use of the beach front," he said.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president of Sri Lanka, had vowed on Thursday to end a decades-old war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) within 48 hours.

He also said civilians in the war zone would be quickly freed.

"The freedom of the Tamil civilians held hostage by the LTTE is near at hand and the rescue of all civilians in the small patch of land held by the LTTE will be done in 48 hours," Rajapaksa was quoted as saying.

In an interview to Al Jazeera on Friday, Palitha Kohona, the Sri Lankan foreign affairs secretary, said: "The fighting is mostly on the sea coast. That is not the area where the refugees are. They are concentrated in the centre of this piece of land."

Kohona accused the LTTE of using civilians to fight the army, a claim the group has previously denied.

"The military knows there are quite a number of LTTE combatants left. They are also throwing young people, children, armed with Kalashnikovs, against the military advance," he said.

'Humanitarian catastrophe'

International concern has grown for tens of thousands of civilians under threat from artillery raids in the war zone.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has given warning of "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe" for the hundreds of wounded trapped without treatment.

"No humanitarian organisation can help them in the current circumstances. People are left to their own devices," Pierre Krahenbuhl, the ICRC's director of operations, said.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has sent his chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, to Sri Lanka for a second time to try to bring the conflict to a peaceful conclusion.

Nambiar is expected to meet senior government officials after he arrives on Saturday, and push for ways "to secure the safety of the 50,000 to 100,000 civilians remaining inside the combat zone", Gordon Weiss, a UN spokesman, said.

About 200,000 civilians have escaped the war zone in recent months and are being held in overwhelmed displacement camps.

Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government has barred most journalists and aid workers from the conflict zone.

The UN says 7,000 civilians were killed and 16,700 wounded in the fighting from January 20 until May 7.

Since then, doctors in the war zone say more than 1,000 civilians were killed in a week of heavy shelling that rights groups and foreign governments have blamed on Sri Lankan forces.

Sri Lanka denies firing heavy weapons into the war zone.

Navi Pillay, the UN's human rights chief, has said both sides may be guilty of war crimes. 2003 - 2009

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Date:May 16, 2009
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