Sri Lankan troops hammer rebels as fears for civilians grow

MULLAITTIVU, January 27, 2009 (AFP) – Sri Lankan troops Tuesday battled Tamil Tigers for control of the last stretch of rebel-held coastline, as international fears mounted for 250,000 civilians caught in the conflict. Soldiers backed by tanks and air cover fought to capture 30 kilometres (18 miles) of seafront, the only territory still controlled by the retreating rebels, Brigadier Nandana Udawatte told reporters taken to the area.

As the government said its offensive to end the separatists’ decades-long campaign was entering its final stages, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed strong concern over the fate of civilians trapped in the war zone.

At least 178 have been killed and another 725 wounded in fighting during January as Sri Lankan forces made rapid progress against the rebels, local health official T. Satyamurthy said.

“We don’t have any staff or medicine. Security is a major problem, so we can’t work properly,” Satyamurthy said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in a statement from its Geneva headquarters said a major humanitarian crisis was unfolding in northern Sri Lanka where about 250,000 people were trapped.

Medical facilities there were overwhelme