Sri Lanka to suspend offensives against rebels

Sri Lankan president said the rebels must renounce violence permanently.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) âÄî Sri Lanka’s president ordered a two-day suspension of offensives against Tamil Tiger rebels to enable tens of thousands of trapped civilians to leave the war zone, his office said Sunday. President Mahinda Rajapaksa directed the armed forces to restrict operations during the April 13-14 Sri Lankan New Year to a defensive nature and renewed his call to the rebel group to “acknowledge its military defeat and lay down its weapons and surrender,” a statement said. He said the rebels must renounce violence permanently. The president’s call came amid increasing international pressure on the government to protect civilians trapped along with the remaining guerrillas in a government-declared “no-fire” zone measuring just 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers). The U.N. says about 100,000 civilians are trapped in the war zone with dozens dying every day. The government and aid groups accuse the rebels of using civilians as human shields and have called for their release. The rebels and rights groups have accused the military of firing into the safe zone âÄî a charge the military denies. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would have liked to see a longer halt, but said the government plan was a “useful first step and an opportunity to move towards the peaceful and orderly end to the fighting now so badly needed.” In his statement, Ban called on both sides to respect the pause in fighting. He said the rebels must allow civilians to move out of the zone, while the government must treat them in accordance with international standards. Britain welcomed the government announcement, but said it was vital that rebels also observe the suspension. “The pause must be long enough for all those who want to leave the conflict zone to do so safely,” British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement Sunday. “Temporary relief for civilians must be the first step towards a resolution of the conflict.” Miliband also said it is essential that access is provided for international humanitarian relief efforts and for journalists “given the scale of the alleged abuses on both sides.” Independent journalists are barred from the war zone. The foreign secretary said he hoped the Rajapaksa’s move could help end the suffering in Sri Lanka. At least 100,000 marched in London on Saturday to demand an immediate end to Sri Lanka’s military offensive and the suspension of development aid to Sri Lanka, a former British colony. Government forces say they are close to crushing the 25-year separatist war. They had previously rejected calls for an official pause in the fighting to allow civilians to leave. It was not possible to contact the insurgents for comment. Meanwhile, soldiers killed eight rebels in sniper attacks just outside the “no-fire” zone, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said. The Tamil Tiger rebels are fighting to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have faced decades of marginalization by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.