COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — In a sign of its growing confidence, Sri Lanka issued an ultimatum Monday calling on Tamil rebels to surrender or perish after the army reportedly breached a major defensive barrier, paving the way for tens of thousands of civilians to make a run for it.
Troops captured an additional square-mile area of the rebels' shrinking terrain Monday, freeing about 19,000 civilians trapped by the fighting, while the navy freed 2,165 more people as more fled in other directions, said Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman.
By some reports, as many as 35,000 noncombatants fled the hotly contested battle zone. None of the claims could be verified since the Sri Lankan government rarely allows independent media, civic or monitoring groups into the conflict area.
Government forces broke through part of a 7-mile-long barrier built by the rebels as they prepared for their last stand, military officials said. The breach allowed civilians to flee the area.
Last week, the government announced a 48-hour halt in its attacks against the rebels, known as the Tamil Tigers, so some of the estimated 100,000 trapped civilians could leave the area, but few emerged. The government blamed that on rebel leaders who, they and some international groups said, have been using noncombatants as human shields.
Sri Lanka has been under international pressure to address a growing humanitarian crisis. But the government has said repeatedly any easing up of pressure will only help the Tigers to escape or regroup.
The civil war has raged for the past quarter century.