COLOMBO: India's foreign secretary flew to Sri Lanka Friday as international pressure intensified on Colombo to halt its assault on Tamil Tiger rebels and save thousands of trapped civilians.
The Indian government said Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and Indian National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan would stress the severity of the humanitarian crisis facing up to 50,000 non-combatants hemmed into the island's northeastern coastal area.
"There is tremendous international pressure building on us to call a ceasefire," acknowledged a Sri Lankan government official who declined to be named.
The announcement of Menon's visit was backed by a strongly-worded statement from Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee who demanded an immediate end to the loss of civilian life.
"These killings must stop. The Sri Lankan government has a responsibility to protect its own citizens and the LTTE must stop its barbaric attempt to hold civilians hostage," Mukherjee said.
The Sri Lankan military says it is on the brink of wiping out the remnants of the once powerful Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who have been cornered in sliver of jungle on the northeast coast.
More than 100,000 men, women and children have managed to escape the area still under LTTE control in recent days, but the United Nations believes up to 50,000 still remain trapped.
The government, however, has steadfastly resisted appeals to call a proper truce and has also turned down requests to send humanitarian teams into the area.
"It would not be sensible to let aid agencies into the conflict zone because there is already an army operation in progress to rescue civilians," Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse told the BBC.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced Thursday that he had a humanitarian team ready to travel to northern Sri Lanka "to do whatever we can to protect the civilian population." Sri Lanka also refused to accept a special envoy named by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, but a minister from the Department for International Development is expected here next week to discuss the crisis.
The LTTE has been accused of using non-combatants as human shields and the the UN has urged the surrounded and outnumbered Tigers to surrender in avoid the loss of more civilian lives.
President Mahinda Rajapakse has insisted that the rebels lay down their arms, while ruling out any amnesty for LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, who has led the group's ruthless decades-long battle for a separate Tamil homeland.
At the height of their power in the mid 1990s, the LTTE controlled more than a third of the island, but a massive military offensive over the past year triggered a spectacular collapse of their mini-state in the north.
The plight of those trapped by the fighting has been highlighted in recent days by television footage of desperate civilians struggling through waist-deep water to get to safety.
The UN's top humanitarian official in Sri Lanka said the situation was disastrous.
"I saw infants with dysentery, malnourished children and women, untended wounds, and people dressed in the ragged clothing they've been wearing for months," said Neil Buhne, the UN's humanitarian coordinator in Sri Lanka.
As well as blocking most aid agencies, the Sri Lankan authorities have herded escaping Tamil civilians into closely-guarded internment camps so it can weed out suspected rebels.
India has adopted a hands-off approach to the Sri Lankan conflict since a disastrous military intervention in the 1980s, but New Delhi continues to exert significant leverage over the government in Colombo.
India is currently in the middle of a month-long general election and the government is under pressure to respond to the concerns of around 60 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu -- a key swing state in the south -- over the fate of their fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka.