COLOMBO Sri Lanka's military on Friday said it killed dozens of Tamil Tiger separatists mounting a heavy counterattack and was moving ahead with plans to create safe routes for civilians to flee the war zone.
Soldiers have trapped the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in less than 45 square km (17 sq miles) of the Indian Ocean island's northeast and are fighting to end Asia's longest-running war by wiping them out.
Combat has grown more intense in the past few weeks, with the LTTE trying more counterattacks, including one soldiers foiled on Thursday, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
"Initially they sent civilians and came behind them to attack troops. Over 50 LTTE cadres were reported killed and we recovered 33 LTTE dead bodies with weapons," he told reporters.
Pressure to ease the suffering of tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone has grown as the area they are in has shrunk, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon again urged both sides to stop fighting long enough to let them out.
Sri Lankan officials on Thursday said they planned to open northern and southern routes out of a 12-km (7.5 miles) long no-fire zone, a coastal strip bounded by water on both sides where nearly all of the civilians are trapped with the LTTE.
Defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella on Friday said the routes had not been finalised. The government has asked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to assist.
"There are passages created every hour. That is the strategy of the government and the forces because if you say you have now opened up one avenue or one passage the LTTE will make sure to block that passage and harm the Tamil people," he said.
The Red Cross on Friday said discussions on how to get the people out of the war zone, known as the Vanni, were ongoing.
"The situation for 150,000 civilians trapped in the Vanni remains critical and the priority is for improving their level of protection," ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno said in Geneva.
The Tigers have denied accounts from witnesses, aid agencies and rights groups that they have shot people trying to flee and have forcibly recruited people, including children, to fight.
The government denies Tiger accusations it was deliberately killing civilians, and says it has slowed the military offensive to protect them. It has acknowledged some may have died when troops returned fire on Tigers firing from populated areas.
The government says there are about 70,000 trapped civilians.
U.N. secretary-general Ban, in a statement late on Thursday, urged the LTTE to get out of civilian areas, cooperate with relief efforts and stop recruiting children.
"He strongly deplores the mounting death toll of civilians in the area of fighting, including a significant number of children. There is an urgent need to bring this conflict to a speedy end without further loss of civilian life," a statement said.
The LTTE has been fighting a civil war since 1983 to create an independent state for minority Tamils, but has landed on U.S., EU, Canadian and Indian terrorism lists after scores of suicide bombings and assassinations aimed at enemies and rival Tamils.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Alex Richardson)