COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan troops closed in on separatist rebels in an ever-shrinking coastal war zone Wednesday, as two prominent guerrillas surrendered and tens of thousands of refugees clutching their belongings fled the fighting in boats.
The sandy beaches north of the 5-mile-long combat zone were filled with ethnic Tamil civilians, according to photos released by the military. Mothers held infants and others carried sick relatives as they sailed to government territory with a navy escort.
The fighting and the surrender of the two officials may be an indication that the guerrillas are feeling pressure from the army's monthslong offensive to end the 25-year-old conflict. The rebels had previously ignored the government's calls to surrender.
The rebels' former media spokesman, Velayutham Dayanithi, whose nom de guerre is Daya Master, and an interpreter for group's political wing, known only as George, turned themselves over to government forces.
The two played prominent roles in talking to the media and visiting foreign diplomats in a now defunct peace process brokered by Norway. The former spokesman is the most senior rebel official to surrender so far, the military spokesman, Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, said.
Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, on Wednesday ruled out a pardon for the reclusive guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran if he is captured alive by advancing government soldiers.
Rajapaksa said Prabhakaran "must now face the consequences of his acts."
The United Nations and humanitarian groups called for an immediate stop to the fighting so more people could escape, as concerns rose for the thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians trapped in the war zone.
Over the past three days, more than 100,000 people fled the coastal strip after soldiers broke through a key rebel embankment, military officials estimated.
The government had previously deemed the area a "no fire" zone to protect civilians. But troops broke through the fortification, entered the zone and captured part of it during fighting Monday and Tuesday. At least 43 rebels were killed, Nanayakkara said.
The government ignored calls to stop the fighting, saying it was on the verge of crushing the insurgency as troops drove rebels from their former strongholds and hemmed them into the tiny strip of coast.
The U.N. estimates more than 4,500 civilians have been killed the past three months but the world body, like all aid groups, has no access to the densely populated area.
On Tuesday, the U.S. released satellite images showing about 25,000 tents for civilians squeezed into the rebel territory.
Journalists are barred from the area, unable to check accusations traded by the rebels and military.
On Tuesday, the rebels accused the government of killing 1,000 civilians in their latest offensive. The military denied that.
Dr. Thangamuttu Sathyamurthi, one of the few physicians working in the war zone, said the bodies of 80 civilians were brought to two makeshift hospitals soon after Monday's army raid but said more people would have died and been buried on the spot.
"More people would have been killed. We saw only 80 bodies but people have seen a lot more people dead on the roads," he said.
Fighting continued Wednesday and artillery shells fell near a Roman Catholic church, wounding a priest and killing three civilians who had pitched tents in the church compound, Sathyamurthi said.
The military, which denies targeting civilians or using heavy weapons on populated areas, accused the rebels of firing artillery.
Red Cross spokeswomen Sarasi Wijeratne said about 1,000 badly wounded people were in desperate need for treatment or to be evacuated to better hospitals. Only two ill-equipped makeshift hospitals function in the war zone.
Wijeratne said the Red Cross had evacuated 6,000 civilians wounded in fighting since January.
Human rights groups accuse the rebels of holding civilians against their will and using them as human shields, and charge the government of engaging in indiscriminate artillery shelling. Both sides deny the allegations.
In London, about 3,000 demonstrators massed outside Britain's Parliament on Wednesday to call for an immediate cease-fire. The pro-Tamil protests have included hunger strikes and instances in which demonstrators have attempted to set themselves on fire.
Britain and France said Wednesday they were pressing for more international help for civilians, including perhaps sending boats for an evacuation mission.
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.
Political analyst Jehan Perera said unless the government shows magnanimity and agrees to share power with Tamil-majority areas, Tamil resentment from the war could affect future ethnic reconciliation.
The government should drop hard-line allies that campaign against power-sharing, he said. "New times will require new people. If the government continues to use the old team still in a war mood, we will be in a difficult period of strife."
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