Sri Lankan troops declare new civilian safe zone

February 12, 2009 (AFP) – Sri Lankan troops declared a new safe zone for civilians Thursday as they battled to finish off the island’s drawn-out ethnic conflict, the defence ministry said.

Concern has mounted for tens of thousands of non-combatants trapped in the war zone, with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) saying hundreds of civilians have already been killed.

Men, women and children were asked to move to a 12-kilometre (7.5 mile) stretch of coastline as troops advanced on the remaining Tiger rebels, the ministry said.

The new safe zone meant that the government was scrapping a previous 35-square kilometre (13 square miles) designated no-fire area.

“The Sri Lanka army, fully committed to provide maximum safety for the lives of entrapped or forcibly detained civilians… calls upon the public to move into those specified areas at the earliest,” the ministry said in a statement.

Military officials said there was heavy fighting in the area where some 700 Tiger rebels were believed to be offering stiff resistance. There were no details of casualties from Thursday’s clashes.

Security forces captured nine mortar tubes from a fortified camp at