COLOMBO: Sri Lankan soldiers have pushed deep into the sole remaining Tamil rebel enclave and killed 35 guerrillas while nearly 78,000 civilians have fled the northern war zone in the past two days, the military said Wednesday.
Troops in recent months have ousted the rebels from all their former strongholds and hemmed them into what the government previously deemed a "no fire" zone to protect civilians. But troops entered the 7.7-square-mile (20-square-kilometer) zone this week to fight remaining rebels and free civilians trapped there.
The military said it broke through a key rebel bunker in the coastal strip on Monday and that tens of thousands of civilians have been fleeing the area since then. As of Tuesday evening, 77,793 civilians had escaped, the military said.
Troops advanced deep into the zone and captured a part of during fighting with insurgents on Monday and Tuesday, killing at least 35 rebels, said Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, the military spokesman. He did not reveal the extent of the area seized by the troops.
He said government forces also suffered casualties, but did not provide details.
It was impossible to get independent accounts from the war zone because journalists are barred from going there.
The United Nations, many countries and rights groups have expressed grave concerns for remaining trapped civilians, fearing the government may launch an all-out assault soon, after giving the rebels a 24-hour ultimatum to surrender. The deadline expired Tuesday with no response from the rebels.
The Red Cross said civilians could face a "catastrophic" situation under such a military assault.
The U.N. and others have called for a negotiated truce to allow civilians to leave the dwindling, rebel-held enclave.
But the government has refused to heed such calls, saying it is on the verge of crushing the rebels and putting an end to the quarter-century-long conflict.
The U.N. estimated more than 4,500 civilians have been killed in the past three months.
The rebels said more than 1,000 civilians died Monday in a government raid, but the military denied the allegation.
Human rights groups say the rebels are holding many people in the enclave against their will and using them as human shields. Those groups have also accused the government of indiscriminate shelling in the region. Both sides deny the allegations.
The number of fleeing civilians made it clear that the government had vastly underestimated how many people were caught in the fighting. While aid groups had estimated that about 100,000 civilians were trapped ahead of this week's exodus, the government had said the figure was only about 40,000.
The U.S. government released satellite images Tuesday showing about 25,000 tents housing civilians squeezed into the last small strip controlled by the rebels. The State Department estimated about 125,000 people were in the conflict zone before the exodus over the past two days.
The rebels have been 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.