Tens of thousands of Tamil civilians crossed Monday into government-held territory in northeast Sri Lanka after troops punched through rebel lines in what could be a decisive blow in one of Asia's longest running wars.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said the mass exodus spelled the "complete defeat" of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group that first took up arms in 1983. Government officials have declared a 24-hour deadline until midday Tuesday for the rebels, led by reclusive commander Velupillai Prabhakaran, to surrender. Analysts have speculated that Mr. Prabhakaran may already have escaped by boat.
The escapees fled Monday along a causeway and across a shallow lagoon that borders a 7.7 square milestrip of coastline that is designated as a no-fire zone. The United Nations recently estimated that more than 100,000 people were sheltering there. Western governments accuse the LTTE of using the trapped civilians as human shields against an overwhelming military onslaught.
Mr. Rajapaksa told Agence-France Presse that more than 35,000 civilians had fled Monday and displayed aerial footage shot by spy planes of the exodus. "It's all now all over for the Tigers," he said.
Brig. Gen. Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman, says this number refers to the total estimated population trapped in the northern section of the zone. About 19,000 had already crossed over, he said, and more were arriving in government-held areas in defiance of LTTE gunmen, whom he accused of firing on the fleeing civilians.
The action began early Monday when troops breached a defensive wall that the LTTE had built along the perimeter of the no-fire zone. At one exit point, three LTTE fighters detonated suicide bombs that killed 17 civilians and wounded another 200, Mr. Nanayakkara says.
"The rescue of more people is in progress," he says.
Government officials have estimated that fewer than 1,000 rebels are making a final stand in the northeast, where the LTTE is seeking to carve out an independent homeland for minority Tamils. Aid workers say the rebels have been forcibly recruiting civilians to fight, further blurring the line between combatants and non-combatants in the contested area.
Some 65,000 civilians have already crossed the front lines since November and found shelter in government-run camps. But none of the escapees have massed on such a large scale as Monday's exodus.
Western governments have repeatedly criticized Sri Lanka for shelling inside the no-fire zone. Up to 5,000 civilians may have died there since mid-January, according to the International Crisis Group. Sri Lankan officials dispute these estimates and accuse the LTTE of forcing civilians into harm's way by positioning heavy weapons in their midst.