Sri Lankan military says it has gained control, cut off escape for Tamil Tigers

Tamil Tiger leaders were trapped in a tiny slice of of Sri Lankan's northeast coast with no chance of sea escape, the country's military said Saturday.

UN rights chief calls for war-crimes probe on both sides of 25-year conflict

Sri Lankan army soldiers patrol the war zone in Vellamullivaikal, Sri Lanka, on Friday. ((Sri Lankan Defence Ministry/Associated Press))

Tamil Tiger leaders are trapped in a tiny slice of of Sri Lankan's northeast coast with no chance of sea escape, the country's military said Saturday.

The announcement comes after President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared Friday that his soldiers would end the island's bloody civil war in 48 hours, a deadline that ends Saturday.

Two army divisions moved up along the island's northeast coast to link up at the coastal village of Vellamullivaikkal and deny the rebels sea access for the first time in its quarter-century civil war, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.

The rebels and tens of thousands of civilians are cornered in a tiny 3.1-square kilometre strip between a lagoon and the sea.

Meanwhile, about 1,800 civilians reportedly fled Sri Lanka's shrinking war zone on Friday, but thousands more were still trapped in rebel-held territory as the military advanced on the Tigers.

The Sri Lankan government has rebuffed growing international concern over the tens of thousands of civilians under threat from the heavy artillery bombardments shaking the four square-kilometre war zone along the island country's northern coastline.

'Unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe'

The International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday warned of "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe" for the hundreds of wounded trapped without treatment.

"No humanitarian organization can help them in the current circumstances," Red Cross operations director Pierre Krahenbuhl said in a statement. "People are left to their own devices."

In this photo released Thursday by Sri Lanka's Defence Ministry, displaced Tamil civilians cross a lagoon to reach government-controlled areas in Vellamullivaikal, Sri Lanka. ((Sri Lankan Defence Ministry/Associated Press) )

The Sri Lankan military said two of its army units were pushing ahead with a pincer movement in the conflict zone, fighting their way down the coast from the north and up from the south in an effort to link up.

The move is aimed at severing the rebels' last remaining sea outlet and completely encircling them, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said. Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama told The Associated Press that Sri Lankan soldiers are probably fighting their final battle against the Tamil Tigers.

He said reports indicate that relatives of top rebel leaders are starting to flee the war zone. The navy stopped a suspicious boat off the northeastern coast Friday and arrested the wife, son and daughter of the rebels' sea wing leader, who were among 11 people on board.

The latest group of civilians to escape the fighting joined more than 3,700 who waded across a lagoon to escape the day before, Nanayakkara said. He said the rebels fired on Thursday's group as they were in the water that serves as the front line of the conflict.

Journalists barred

Casualty reports emerging from the war zone are almost impossible to verify, as the government has barred all independent journalists from the area.

The rebel group has accused the military of deliberately firing on civilians, while the government says the Tamil Tigers are using civilians as human shields.

The military has denied firing heavy weapons in recent weeks as it pushes to finish off the rebels, though human rights groups and international officials say the government has continued artillery attacks.

Navi Pillay, the UN's human rights commissioner, said Friday she supports calls for an inquiry into the Sri Lankan conflict as evidence mounts of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity on both sides.

Pillay, an ethnic Tamil from South Africa, previously served as a judge for the Rwanda war-crimes tribunal and the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

'Race against time' to help refugees

Those who have escaped the conflict zone must now contend with a "second emergency" at the refugee camps, where some 200,000 people have amassed, said Melanie Brooks, who just returned to Geneva from Sri Lanka with an aid team from CARE International.

"We’re doing pretty well in terms of getting enough food and enough shelter for the people that are there; the main challenge is getting enough water," Brooks told CBC News on Friday.

"But it’s a race against time to get enough tents up and enough food in place for the people that we expect are going to come out of the conflict zone as this conflict comes to an end."

The government's recent offensive has sparked a series of demonstrations worldwide from expatriate Tamil groups, especially in Canadian cities such as Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. The protesters are demanding the Canadian government bring sanctions against the Sri Lankan government to pressure it to commit to peace negotiations. 

Speaking in Friday's question period in the House of Commons, Peter Kent, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Foreign Affairs, said the UN Security Council has joined Canada and other countries in calling for both parties to the conflict to immediately cease fire in the "deepening humanitarian tragedy."

"Canada continues to call on the terrorist Tamil Tigers to lay down arms and to release the civilians they’re holding as human shields and, at the same time, for the Sri Lankan forces to cease indiscriminate artillery fire," Kent told the Commons.

The Tamil Tigers were banned in Canada as a terrorist group in 2006 for their use of child soldiers and suicide bombers during the country's 25-year civil war, which has killed an estimated 70,000 people.

The United Nations says 7,000 civilians were killed and 16,700 wounded in the fighting from Jan. 20 until May 7 alone, according to a UN document given to The Associated Press by a senior diplomat.

With files from The Associated Press