B. Muralidhar Reddy

Hundreds waiting for chance to escape

FROM WAR ZONE IN SRI LANKA: At least 3,000 civilians, held hostage by the LTTE inside the 3.5-sq. km. new safety zone (NSZ) along the Mullaithivu sea coast, escaped on Thursday as the Sri Lanka military opened up an escape route.

In the evening, the military recovered a Jordanian ship from inside the NSZ. The ship, carrying 14,000 tonnes of rice from India to South Africa, was seized by the LTTE in December 2006 after it developed a technical snag and got stranded in the high seas.

Amid intermittent explosions that shattered the serene settings along the placid waters of the Indian Ocean, visibly shaken civilians were running to safety in the government controlled territory. Images from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of the military show that several hundred people, from inside the NSZ under LTTE occupation, are waiting for an opportune moment to escape.

Military commanders believe that the exodus from the LTTE-held area is expected to pick up. “We hope to facilitate the release of all the stranded citizens in the current phase of the operation,” General Officer Commanding 58 Division Shavindra de Silva told The Hindu.

The latest rescue operation began amid concern expressed by the U.N. Security Council and U.S. President Barack Obama over the deteriorating humanitarian crisis inside the NSZ and an offer by the Tigers to engage with the Sri Lanka government in the “interest of the civilians.”

The LTTE political head, B. Nadesan, in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, assured her that the LTTE would cooperate with any U.N. humanitarian mission to areas under its control and expressed its readiness for a dialogue on the safety and security of the civilian population there. However, Colombo said it had nothing to negotiate with the Tigers and its chief concern was the rescue of the civilians.

The route to the territory inside the NSZ captured by the military presented a picture of a huge junk yard. Abandoned and burnt buses, two-wheelers and bicycles and concrete and semi-concrete structures reduced to rubble bore testimony to the pitched battles fought in the last few weeks.

The military-facilitated visit to Karyamullaivaikkal, the village which caught international attention after reports of 378 civilians killed and 1,000 injured in purported indiscriminate shelling, showed no trace of fighting. Two separate makeshift hospitals in thatched huts stood intact.

Military commanders on the ground said the civilian exodus was continuing; people were seeking protection with troops of 59 Division now operating north of the Wadduvakal causeway.

“The three frontal simultaneous military surges led by the 58, 53 and 59 Divisions have denied the LTTE strategic ground advantage, also thinning out the LTTE’s lines of defence,” the commanders said.

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