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After 26 years of fighting, Asia's longest-running conflict in Sri Lanka has reached what one US official called a "decisive point." Sri Lankan forces have cornered the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a 6.5-square-mile area on the northern tip of the island nation. The area is the LTTE forces' last major defensive position.
The separatist group had refused calls from the United Nations and several Western governments to release tens of thousands of civilians from their position. LTTE was believed to be holding them as human shields, but three days ago government forces broke through a barrier around the position, allowing more than 80,000 civilians to flee the area, reports Deutsche Presse-Agentur, a German news agency.
Outgunned and unable to resupply, the Sri Lankan government says it may be entering into an "endgame" with the LTTE. The group has refused to surrender, although the Sri Lankan Army's website claimed Wedneseday that two top rebels had surrendered, reports the BBC. Government forces still face complications, as despite the mass exodus of refugees over the last three days, thousands remain trapped in the war-torn region, reports the Press Trust of India.
Satellite imagery of the embattled zone released for the first time showed that tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils were squeezed into the last small strip of land controlled by the Tamil Tigers.
The imagery released by the US State Department shows about 25,000 tents packed into a coastal strip about 18 sq km, prompting US and Red Cross officials to ask Colombo for a pause to enable women and children escape the conflict zone.
As government forces move into what they are calling their "final assault" on the rebels, aid agencies and members of the LTTE have accused them of targeting civilians, reports the Australian Broadcasting Corp. In the past week, aid agencies and rebel leaders say the government assault has led to the death of "hundreds, if not thousands of causalities." While the country's High Commissioner to Australia charges that the military has never knowingly targeted civilians, he concedes that his forces must act with caution to avoid creating sympathy for the rebel group that could result in more attacks even after the fall of the strong hold.
But the High Commissioner has also conceded that removing Tamil Tigers from their strongholds might end up causing an surge in suicide bombings and other terrorism-related tactics.
Many long-time observers of Sri Lanka's troubled history with the Tamil Tigers believe the Government is very close to its military objective. But the forceful tactics of the army, air force, and the navy come with an increasing human cost.
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is growing increasingly concerned for the safety of the refugees still trapped amid the fighting, reports EuroNews in a video dispatch. The international aid agency says the next 48 hours will be critical.
"We are extremely worried about the tens of thousands of civilians who are trapped in this rapidly-shrinking no-fire zone," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the ICRC Head of Operations. "We consider their situation at present to be nothing short of catastrophic."
Independent journalists are banned from covering the fighting, but the Red Cross released dramatic pictures of wounded refugees.
As Sri Lanka attempts to end the conflict definitively, there has been an outcry from many in the international community accusing government forces of recklessly waging a war that has claimed thousands of innocent lives. A Washington Post editorial cites UN statistics saying that 4,500 civilians have been killed since January and quotes a UN official, who said the assault could result in a "bloodbath." The author laments the limited news coverage and muted reaction from the international community.
The fighting threatens to produce exactly the kind of cataclysm that states vowed to prevent when they adopted "the responsibility to protect" at the 2005 U.N. World Summit. This doctrine stipulates that states have a responsibility to protect peoples within their borders from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. When states are found to be "manifestly failing" to protect citizens from such mass violence, that responsibility shifts to the international community, acting through the United Nations. At the core of this norm is the obligation to act preventively rather than waiting until atrocities have occurred, as has happened too often.
Still, there have been several large protests around the world in support of the ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka. Monday saw large protests in London, reports SkyNews, as well as in Paris, reports The Daily Telegraph. Canada, home to a large population of ethnic Tamils, has seen some of the largest protests. For two weeks, small demonstrations have taken place throughout the country, but on Tuesday 30,000 protesters rallied in front of the Parliament to show support of the Tamil people, reports The Globe and Mail.
Supporters of the Sri Lankan government have derided protesters as misled agents of the LTTE. One blogger wrote on LankaNewspapers.com that while demonstrators showed support for the Tamil Tigers, the group, considered a terrorist organization by more than 30 nations, abused and threatened the lives of innocent civilians.
It is not only [LTTE leader Velupillai] Prabhakaran and his fellow criminals on the battlefield who must be condemned for violence against civilians. His collaborators staging protests in foreign capitals and foreign diplomats running riot in Colombo together with their INGO/NGO hirelings all out to derail Sri Lanka's war on terror must also be held answerable for those crimes as it is they who keep the LTTE going by giving Prabhakaran false hope that if he could hold out, they would be able to have the war halted.