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.
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.
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.
Last week, more than 100,000 civilians crossed by foot into government-held territory, swelling its resettlement camps. Of the children evacuated, about one in four was suffering from severe malnutrition, according to the UN. Human rights groups say there are reports of civilians dying before they could receive medical attention, underscoring the plight of those left behind.
"We have no effective access to civilians caught in the combat zone, nor is there any likelihood of the LTTE letting them go at this stage. People are suffering acute levels of hunger and desperately need medical care," says Gordon Weiss, a spokesman for the UN in Sri Lanka.
Army criticized for shelling no-fire zone
Since Tuesday, Sri Lankan troops have breached two more defensive walls and thwarted several LTTE suicide attacks, says General Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman. Fewer than 500 hardened rebel fighters remain, though more civilians are being forcibly recruited to fight, he says.
On Monday, Sri Lanka said its military would stop using heavy weapons and air raids in its final offensive. But human rights groups and Western diplomats say there has been no let-up in the bombardment of a designated no-fire zone, where the UN estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians are seeking shelter in catastrophic conditions.
Military officials argue that troops can easily crush the outnumbered rebels but are holding back firepower and advancing slowly so as to avoid civilian casualties. "We have to differentiate terrorists from civilians. That's why we're slowing down," says General Nanayakkara.
The US and other countries have criticized Sri Lanka over the shelling of the no-fire zone, which the government often blames on the LTTE. Human rights groups say Monday's announcement is a tacit admittance of its complicity. A recent internal UN tally of civilian casualties put the number killed since Jan. 20 at nearly 6,500. That was before last week's offensive, which aid workers say resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, including those shot by the LTTE.
The trapped civilians may find it harder to escape on foot – as they did last week – because of the terrain in the last three mile-long slither of rebel-held coastline, says the Western diplomat. The surrounding lagoon is too deep to wade through, and there is no road access. Nanayakkara says the LTTE has burned fishing boats to prevent civilians from fleeing by sea.
A bloody showdown could be next, warns Alan Keenan, a senior analyst in Colombo for the International Crisis Group. "What we saw last week confirmed that there are huge numbers of people trapped in miserable conditions ... and that the number of killed and wounded could grow significantly higher if a final assault is allowed to take place."