35,000 civilians flee Tiger area: Sri Lanka president

April 20, 2009 (AFP) – More than 35,000 civilians Monday fled the last area under the control of Sri Lanka’s cornered Tamil Tigers, President Mahinda Rajapakse said, adding that the rebels’ “complete defeat” was imminent.

Showing aerial video from a military spy plane over the tiny area where the Tigers are staging a last stand, Rajapakse said 35,000 non-combatants had crossed the lines into government-held territory since early Monday morning.

“The footage clearly shows that the people are defying the rebels and escaping. They are running to safety,” the president said.

The government has accused the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam of using trapped civilians as a human shield, and the president suggested that their escape removed a final obstacle to an all-out military assault.

“The process of the complete defeat of the LTTE has just begun,” he told AFP. “It is now all over for the Tigers.”

The Sri Lankan military said that the Tigers had killed 17 civilians Monday, including women and children, in a reported suicide bombing aimed at preventing them escaping.

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