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Sri Lanka government still resists a cease-fire

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka agreed to stop firing heavy weapons into the northern war zone to safeguard thousands of civilians trapped there but resisted growing pressure Monday for a cease-fire in its war with the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The rebels accused the government of instantly violating its promise by launching airstrikes from three sides on a village in a densely populated no-fire zone, a pro-guerrilla Web site reported.

A flurry of diplomatic activity has so far failed to halt an offensive that has forced the rebels out of the shadow state they once ran in the north of this Indian Ocean island nation and left them cornered in a tiny coastal strip.

U.S., Indian and European officials have expressed growing concern for the estimated 50,000 ethnic Tamil civilians still trapped in the war zone. The United Nations says nearly 6,500 noncombatants have already been killed in the recent offensive.

The U.N. humanitarian chief, John Holmes, asked President Mahinda Rajapaksa during a meeting in Colombo on Monday for a "humanitarian pause" in the fighting to allow the civilians to escape or at least to emerge from their bunkers to forage for food.

"I have to say, I don't see much prospect of that at the moment," he said before flying back to New York after a three-day visit.

EU foreign ministers also appealed for an immediate cease-fire and urged peace talks to end the quarter-century civil war. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his French and Swedish counterparts are to visit Wednesday to press the point.

In an apparent effort to allay the pressure, the government issued a brief statement Monday announcing "that combat operations have reached their conclusion" and instructing the military "to end the use of heavy caliber guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons which could cause civilian casualties."

The government, which accuses the rebels of holding the civilians as human shields, said it would continue efforts to free them.

The statement, a day after the government flatly rejected a cease-fire appeal from the rebels, was surrounded by confusion. Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman, said the military had stopped using the weapons weeks ago.

Sri Lanka government still resists a cease-fire 04/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 27, 2009 10:16pm]
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