Sri Lanka warns civilians in combat zone

February 2, 2009 (AFP) – Sri Lanka issued a stark warning to civilians trapped in fighting with Tamil Tiger rebels Monday, a day after shells hit a crowded hospital in the northeast combat zone, killing at least nine people. A government statement said the fight against the cornered Tigers was at “the decisive stage” and that it could not guarantee the security of tens of thousands of non-combatants living outside a designated “safety zone” in rebel-held territory.

“The government calls on all civilians to enter the demarcated ‘safety zone’ as soon as possible,” the statement said.

“The government cannot be responsible for the safety and security of civilians still living among LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorists,” it added.

A year-long military offensive has pushed the once-powerful LTTE back into 300-square kilometre (110-square mile) jungle area on the island’s northeast coast.

The United Nations says up to 250,000 non-combatants are trapped in the area. The Sri Lankan government says the figure is closer to 120,000.

Aid agencies say hundreds of civilians may already have been killed in the crossfire and scores more injured, including children as young as 10 days old.