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Sri Lanka rejects growing calls for cease-fire

French and British envoys Wednesday urged a halt to fighting as concerns deepen about 50,000 trapped civilians.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2009

Displaced Sri Lankans stand in front of tents at a refugee camp in northern Sri Lanka. International calls for a cease-fire have gone unheeded as the government closes in on the Tamil Tigers.

Reuters

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Colombo, Sri Lanka

As Sri Lankan troops fight their way into a shrinking rebel redoubt, triggering a mass exodus of war-weary civilians, international calls are growing louder to spare those still trapped by the fighting.

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But in a nation roused by promises of imminent victory in a 26-year conflict, there is deep suspicion of any intervention that could benefit the cornered Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). And, far from bending under the pressure, Sri Lanka's government has rebuffed Western envoys and their proposals to avert further civilian deaths.

The foreign ministers of Britain and France are the latest and among the highest-profile visitors to join the chorus. On Wednesday, they urged the warring sides to halt hostilities and allow humanitarian aid to reach at least 50,000 people hunkered down in the war zone.

"Now is the time for the fighting to stop ... There is no question that the military advance of government forces over last six months has been striking. But winning the peace is as vital as winning the war," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told a joint press conference here.

Sri Lanka's government has roundly rejected this and other cease-fire calls, although it announced a two-day halt in fighting earlier this month. Officials insist that their military strategy of rescuing civilians by penetrating LTTE defenses is working and that a cease-fire now would only delay an inevitable victory.

Earlier this week, United Nations humanitarian chief John Holmes left empty-handed after a three-day visit aimed at persuading Sri Lanka to open a humanitarian corridor to the rebel-held territory.

Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, fared even worse: Sri Lanka refused him a visa to join his British and French counterparts. Visibly angered, Mr. Bildt promptly recalled his envoy in protest. Sri Lanka denied any snub and said he could visit in future.

Tigers accused of holding hostages

Behind the diplomatic friction is frustration at both the government restrictions on humanitarian access and the brutal tactics of the LTTE. Far from accepting a negotiated surrender, the leaders are using their fellow Tamils as cannon fodder and holding out for a cease-fire that could allow them to escape, says a senior Western diplomat in Colombo.

"The only power they have is the presence of the civilians. That's a dreadful weapon," he says.

Echoing their Sri Lankan counterpart, France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, and Mr. Miliband both condemned the LTTE Wednesday for preventing people from leaving the war zone. "Hostages. We have to use that word. [They are] hostages," Mr. Kouchner said.

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