Sri Lanka Rules Out Amnesty as Troops Move in for Final Kill

COLOMBO ~ Sri Lanka ruled out an amnesty for the Tamil Tiger leader as troops pressed a final offensive against the cornered rebels, despite a global outcry over the plight of civilians trapped in the war zone.

President Mahinda Rajapakse said Velupillai Prabhakaran, whose Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are fighting to prevent complete defeat after being pushed into a narrow stretch of coastal jungle in the northeast of the island, would not be pardoned.

“The LTTE leader has spurned the possibility of pardon by us,” the president’s office quoted him as saying on Wednesday. “He must now face the consequences of his acts.”

With fears mounting for civilians caught up in the conflict, the UN Security Council president said later Wednesday that the rebels must surrender and allow innocent people stuck in the battle zone to leave.

“We demand that the LTTE immediately lay down arms, renounce terrorism, allow a UN-assisted evacuation of the remaining civilians in the conflict area and join the political process,” Claude Heller, of Mexico, told journalists after an informal Security Council meeting.

Back on the frontline, two senior Tiger officials surrendered on Wednesday as the military reported that more than 100,000 civilians had escaped from rebel-held territory and sought shelter with troops since Monday.

The rebels’ chief spokesman Velayudam Dayanidi, better known as Daya Master, and an official who once served as an aide to the late head of the Tigers’ political wing turned themselves in to government forces.

Video footage by state television showed men and women carrying infants and the sick were seen wading through waist-deep water to get to safety while thousands waited for food.

“Our operations to rescue civilians are continuing,” government defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters, describing the Tigers as a spent force with just 12 square kilometres (five square miles) of land left.

“They are fighting a losing battle,” he said, adding the government also “strongly believes” that Prabhakaran, 54, was still in the area.

The Tigers, who have been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1972, have acknowledged losing ground and have accused the government of killing 1,000 civilians in recent days.

The military said fleeing non-combatants were fired on by the rebels who allegedly kept villagers as human shields.

The rival claims are hard to verify as independent reporters are not allowed near the conflict zone but aid agencies have painted a grim picture.

“The situation is nothing short of catastrophic,” said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, operations director for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

One hospital in northern Vavuniya was “saturated” with patients coming from the conflict area, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) spokeswoman Olivia Blanchard said.

“Around 1,700 patients have arrived to the hospital, which only has 400 beds,” said Blanchard, who spoke by phone with medical staff earlier in the day.

The hospital in the government-controlled area had received more than 400 new patients in the past two days.

“The buses are still coming and they’re actually unloading dead bodies at times as some wounded people died on the way,” said Karen Stewart, an MSF mental health officer working in Vavuniya, according to a statement from the agency.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress: “This is such a terrible humanitarian tragedy. And we have been pressing the Sri Lankan government for a halt in the fighting so that we could secure a safe passage for as many of the trapped civilians as possible.”

Britain also urged a ceasefire, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown saying he would send a minister to Sri Lanka this week following talks with President Rajapakse.

“We will press on the government the need for humanitarian help but we will also press on him the need for a ceasefire and the need for a political solution to these problems,” Brown told lawmakers.

The LTTE were once considered one of the world’s most efficient guerrilla outfits, controlling over a third of Sri Lanka’s territory and running a de facto mini-state.

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