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Sri Lanka Rejects Call for Truce, Saying Defeat of Rebels Is Near

by Somini Sengupta, The New York Times, February 6, 2009

The [ICRC] agency has repeatedly warned both sides that hospitals and known civilian sites are, by definition, protected zones under international law.

NEW DELHI — Rejecting international calls for a cease-fire, Sri Lanka said Thursday that it had the vestige of a rebel group cornered in a small wedge of the northeastern coast, where the group’s elusive leader was likely to be holed up in the company of thousands of civilians.

Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa said in a telephone interview from Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, that government forces could swiftly seize the bastion of the rebel leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, and his subordinates were it not for a shield of civilians they had placed around them.

“The leaders are still there in that area, and they have that human shield,” Mr. Rajapaksa said. “Very soon when we overrun this place, we will be able to capture him.”

The military also announced the capture of the last known naval base of the rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. A few days ago, it said it had captured the last of seven airstrips held by the Tamil Tigers’ crude but deadly air force, as well as a village hut that it had described as a hide-out of Mr. Prabhakaran.

There is no way to confirm any of what the government says. Journalists are not allowed anywhere near the war zone. The Tamil Tigers have not been reachable for comment.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, or I.C.R.C., estimates that 250,000 civilians are trapped in the combat zone; the government says there are far fewer.

Whatever the numbers, Mr. Rajapaksa said the government would not agree to a cease-fire, as several of Sri Lanka’s backers, including the United States, have urged, to allow the civilians to evacuate. “We had so many cease-fires in the last three decades,” he said. “None of these cease-fires solved the problem. Don’t give them breathing space.”

The Tamil Tigers have been widely accused by, among others, international aid agencies, of prohibiting civilians from leaving the area, which has been bombarded by aerial attacks, artillery shelling and even cluster munitions. One of the worst victims of the fighting was the last proper hospital in the rebel-held area, which had come under such repeated shelling over four days that the Red Cross, which helps run the hospital, had to evacuate all patients and staff members and flee deeper into rebel-controlled territory.

On Thursday, Mr. Rajapaksa, the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, denied that government troops would shell the hospital, but insisted that not all its patients were civilians and that the Tamil Tigers were fighting in the vicinity. He said the Red Cross had been cautioned to evacuate the hospital into what the government had demarcated as a no-fire zone.

The agency has repeatedly warned both sides that hospitals and known civilian sites are, by definition, protected zones under international law.

President Rajapaksa said Wednesday that it would be just days before the Tamil Tigers were defeated, promising an end to one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.