Sri Lanka advance slowed by civilians: defence chief

February 25, 2009 (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s advance against Tamil Tiger rebels, now in its final stages, has been slowed considerably by the presence of civilians in the war zone, the nation’s top defence official says. An estimated 70,000 civilians are inside the shrinking territory in the coastal area of Mullaittivu, into which the rebels have been penned after losing their mini-state, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse said.

“The military is taking more casualties now because they can no longer soften the target using artillery and air attacks,” he told AFP late Tuesday in an interview at his tightly guarded sea-front office in the capital.

At the same time, he said troops were on the verge of victory after 37 years of fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who have been struggling for a separate Tamil state within the Sinhalese-majority island.

The plight of non-combatants has sparked UN-led calls for a truce to allow civilians to leave. The International Red Cross warned earlier this month a humanitarian catastrophe was unfolding in the region.

But Rajapakse, who is President Mahinda Rajapakse’s younger brother, said a ceasefire was unnecessary as troops were not attacking