A United Nations convoy in Sri Lanka on Thursday evacuated about 300 civilians wounded in fighting between Sri Lankan troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). According to humanitarian agencies, about 250,000 civilians are trapped in the remaining LTTE territory in northeastern Sri Lanka. However, the Sri Lankan authorities are playing down the threat posed to civilians in one of Asia's longest running wars.
The convoy crossed the front line out of the battle zone during a brief pause in the fighting.
A UN spokesman said the injured, including 50 children, were being taken to a hospital in the town of Vavuniya....
The United Nations convoy, which was trapped in the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu, succeeded in its second attempt in three days to [evacuate] the critically wounded civilians.
Previous attempts by the convoy to remove wounded civilians were blocked by the LTTE, reports The New York Times.
The International Committee for the Red Cross confirmed the evacuation and said the convoy was carrying 226 civilians, including children, who had been injured in intense fighting over the last 10 days in and around Mullaittivu, the last rebel stronghold along the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka.
Their injuries may have stemmed from government shelling, though it was impossible to verify because journalists and aid workers have been barred from the combat zone. For three days, the convoy was prevented from crossing the front line by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also called the Tamil Tigers.
The breakthrough came Thursday, after aid agencies, human rights groups and the United Nations, which has been unable to evacuate some of its staff and their dependents, issued unusually strong statements criticizing the warring parties.
However, the LTTE has denied blocking the convoy's passage, reports The Guardian.
Late yesterday, the pro-rebel website TamilNet.com said the Tigers denied blocking the convoy, quoting the director of the LTTE peace secretariat, S Puleedevan.
"The LTTE has been repeatedly urging the ICRC to facilitate unhindered transportation of injured civilians who need urgent attention, and also for the provision of medical facilities locally," TamilNet quoted him as saying.
Civilians have borne the brunt of recent fighting between the Sri Lankan military and LTTE forces, adds The Guardian.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said hundreds had been killed or wounded in the last week. Many were stranded without adequate treatment in poorly equipped hospitals, and the ICRC and UN arranged a convoy to carry them to a government hospital in Vavuniya, outside the war zone, in the north of the island.
According to Agence France-Presse, human rights groups are predicting a humanitarian disaster in the region if the military offensive persists. (Click here for a map of the region from the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense.)
"The situation for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable civilians trapped in the Wanni war zone is becoming increasingly dangerous," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, referring to the island's northern jungles.
"Both the government and the LTTE need to take urgent action to prevent large-scale civilian deaths."
The United Nations, the European Union, Canada and India have added their voices to concerns raised by local and international rights groups for the safety of civilians.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Tuesday that a "major humanitarian crisis" was unfolding.
Sri Lankan authorities, meanwhile, are playing down the predicament of civilians trapped in the northeastern battle zone, reports the BBC.
On Wednesday Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse denied that the fighting had led to a humanitarian crisis in the north.
He told the BBC that he had a policy of "zero" civilian casualties and that the ICRC and UN were wrong about the situation in the north.
"I'm not saying they are lying but they are exaggerating," Mr Rajapakse said.
He also ruled out any ceasefire for humanitarian reasons, saying it would give the Tigers a chance to reorganise.
The defense secretary's remarks came a day after the Sri Lankan authorities vowed to respect safe zones and protect Tamil civilians, reports Bloomberg.
Sri Lanka is trying to minimize the effect of the conflict on Tamils and will respect the "safe zones" declared for civilians by the security forces, President Mahinda Rajapaksa told India's Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee after talks in Colombo two days ago.
However, the Associated Press reports that civilians in safe zones have also been wounded during the military offensive.
Dr. Thurairajah Varatharajah, the top health official in the war zone, said at least 1,140 civilians were wounded in the past week and estimated at least 250 were killed in the fighting.
The United Nations said some staff members and their relatives were huddled in a bunker over the weekend in a government designated "safe zone" when artillery shells landed nearby and killed nine people taking shelter 10 meters (30 feet) away.
An internal U.N. memo said the shells were apparently fired by government forces.
Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara has said no civilians had been killed, but that some people who were forced by the rebels to build fortifications might have been wounded in crossfire.
Civilian casualties are rising as the Sri Lankan Army offensive continues and the conflict zone shrinks. According to the Associated Press, a key northern crossroad and several rebel bases were also captured on Thursday.
Ground troops overran the Vishwamadu junction on Wednesday afternoon after heavy fighting with the rebels, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said. The junction, just outside the village of Vishwamadu, lies along one of the few major roads remaining in rebel-held territory.
The army also captured several rebel camps – including a bunker complex with a luxury room and conference hall – in fighting throughout the day Wednesday, the military said.
As a result of the intensifying military offensive, LTTE forces are fleeing the area, reports the Indian daily The Hindu.
According to military sources, troops have also gained control over a 10-km stretch of the road, running North of Visuamadu via Puliyampokkanai towards Chundikkulama. Troops are now engaged in mopping up the remaining LTTE resistances south of Visuamadu and Piramanthal Kulama, the Defence Ministry said.
"LTTE cadres unable to withstand the military onslaught have further fled towards the declared safer zones at Teravilkulam and Udayarkattukulama," military sources said.