SL vows to defeat LTTE in 48 hrs

COLOMBO: The Sri Lankan government vowed Friday to finish off the Tamil Tigers within 48 hours, defying international calls for a truce and warnings of a "humanitarian catastrophe" inside the rebel-held zone.

The signal that a final offensive against the beleaguered separatist guerrillas was imminent came as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's chief of staff was rushing to the island in a fresh effort to stop the carnage.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only neutral organisation working in the conflict area, said its staff were "witnessing an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe." Former colonial power Britain said it wanted an investigation into alleged war crimes, while the United States announced it was blocking a two billion dollar International Monetary Fund bailout package for Sri Lanka.

Tens of thousands of Tamil civilians are believed to be trapped inside a tiny patch of jungle still held by the rebels. Hundreds have been reported killed in indiscriminate shelling over the past week.

But Sri Lankan government spokesman Anusha Palpita said the war would be over by Sunday morning.

"The president (Mahinda Rajapakse) assured that within the next 48 hours the thousands of Tamil civilians will be freed from the clutches of the Tamil Tigers," Palpita said.

"All territory will be freed from Tiger control." Military officials said the fighting with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) hold-outs was continuing to rage.

"Security forces are continuing the humanitarian operations to free the Tamil civilians held hostage by the Tigers," an official said.

The government maintains that the Tigers are using civilians as human shields and they need to be rescued. Any civilian deaths inside Tiger territory have been blamed on the rebels.

The UN's human rights chief Navi Pillay has already said both sides may be guilty of war crimes.

The ICRC, the only aid organisation that the government allows to work in the conflict zone, issued its darkest statement to date on the current round of fighting.

"Our staff are witnessing an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe," Pierre Krahenbuhl, the ICRC director of operations said in Geneva.

He said a Red Cross boat had been unable to reach wounded civilians for three days because of the fierce fighting, while emergency food aid was also stuck off the coast.

"Despite high-level assurances, the lack of security on the ground means that our sea operations continue to be stalled, and this is unacceptable," Krahenbuhl said.

The UN has said as many as 50,000 may be trapped -- huddled under plastic sheeting, in shallow bunkers and with little or no food, water or medical facilities.

A top UN envoy, the secretary general's chief of staff Vijay Nambiar, was meanwhile due on the island Friday "to help resolve the humanitarian situation," officials in New York said.

Prior peace missions by top diplomats have ended in failure, and on Thursday the Sri Lanka government vowed it would not cave in to pressure to halt the war.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this meant it was "not an appropriate time" to consider a massive IMF bailout loan for the island.

The United States is the main shareholder in the IMF and its approval is key to the release of the loan.

In Britain, junior foreign minister Bill Rammell called for a war crimes probe -- something already demanded by leading human rights groups.

"The UN's estimate, if it is accurate, of over 6,500 civilian deaths since January is truly shocking and appalling," he said.

"We would support an early investigation into all incidents that may have resulted in civilian casualties... to determine whether war crimes have been committed."