COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa said on Thursday his government had no intention of a ceasefire with Tamil Tiger rebels, telling international critics the military’s actions constituted a “humanitarian operation.”
Sri Lanka has been under fresh pressure this week, from the European Union among others, to allow a ceasefire so civilians trapped in the tiny area the Tigers still hold can escape.
U.S. officials meanwhile told Reuters Washington wanted an IMF loan to Sri Lanka delayed to encourage Colombo to do more to help the civilians caught in the last redoubt of the Tigers, who have fought a 25-year war for a separate ethnic Tamil homeland.
“We have at no time gone for a ceasefire. We will not do so now. There is no time for that now,” Rajapaksa said in a speech published on government websites.
“In the five or six days remaining we have given the opportunity for the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) to lay down their arms and surrender,” he said, urging them to also let civilians leave.
In addition to a ceasefire, foreign countries have asked for more access for aid workers and others to the battle zone, but Rajapaksa said what was happening there should be obvious.
“With satellite technology the whole world can now see how the LTTE uses tanks to fire at the Tamil people fleeing from them. Of what need special observers to know of this?”
While Colombo fears a ceasefire could allow the Tigers to regroup and re-arm, it says it is taking care not to target civilians in the LTTE-held area of coastline the military puts at 5 to 7 square kilometers (2 to 3 square miles).
The United Nations estimates up to 50,000 civilians are trapped there. The government puts the figure lower, and said this week it would not use heavy weapons against the Tigers, but concentrate on trying to free civilians using small arms.
Describing troops carrying little children and the aged to safety, and parents who “go on their knees to respect our troops for saving them from terror,” Rajapaksa said: “That is why we call this a humanitarian operation.”
The Tigers say despite such statements from the government side, they are still subject to shelling and air strikes taking the lives of hundreds of civilians. A senior U.N. official also expressed concern over reports of shelling this week.
The military meanwhile continues to report inflicting significant casualties on the Tigers.
While both sides say they avoid targeting civilians, an internal U.N. tally of casualties says nearly 6,500 people have been killed in fighting since late January.
Those and other claims related to the battle zone are difficult to confirm given a lack of access for media and of independent observers on the ground.
The largely Hindu Tamils are a minority in Sri Lanka, outnumbered by mostly Buddhist Sinhalese.
Complaints of discrimination and ill-treatment by the majority sparked the long-running Tiger rebellion, but the Tigers’ pioneering use of suicide bombings as a tactic earned them the enmity of many Sri Lankans and a “terrorist” tag from such countries as the United State, Canada, Britain and India.
That has not stopped those countries from saying Colombo should do more for Tamil civilians, some 200,000 of whom are now out of Tiger control and in government-run camps.
In the face of the global financial slowdown, Sri Lanka needs foreign aid and trade, and is looking to the proposed $1.9 billion loan from the IMF for support and to help pay for postwar reconstruction.
The country’s $40 billion economy has been under pressure because of shrinking export earnings from tea and garments. Foreign currency reserves dropped by half in the last four months of 2008 as the central bank defended the rupee.
News of the U.S. officials’ comments about wanting the loan delay hurt both shares and the rupee in early trade on Thursday, dealers said. Levels recovered after central bank statements the loan process was proceeding and in final stages.
The U.S. officials had said Washington could ultimately support the loan if Colombo addressed the humanitarian issues or if it concluded preventing the loan was counter-productive.
“I don’t think there is any stomach to punish them from here to eternity on this,” said one official.
Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez, and Arshad Mohammed and Lesley Wroughton in WASHINGTON; Writing by Jerry Norton; Editing by Sugita Katyal