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Thousands displaced after Lanka air assault

More than 40,000 people have been displaced and are languishing as refugees," the LTTE said in a statement.

india Updated: Apr 27, 2006 11:56 IST

Thousands of frightened people have been left homeless in northeastern Sri Lanka after government air strikes on suspected Tamil Tiger rebel positions, the rebels and a UN official said on Thursday.

"More than 40,000 people have been displaced and are languishing as refugees," the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said in a statement.

"They are terrorised. Normalcy in civilian life has been utterly destroyed."

Lyndon Jeffels, spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, said UN staff could not confirm the figure of 40,000 but he said it was clear that thousands of people were on the move.

"Certainly it seems that there is a very significant displacement as a consequence of the aerial bombardment," Jeffels told BBC radio.

"The local government authority in Trincomalee district has issued a figure of 40,000 people on the move in Muttur, which is in the east of Trincomalee. This figure we haven't been able to verify because we simply don't have access to this area," the UNHCR official said.

Jeffels said the situation in northeast Sri Lanka was extremely tense and that most humanitarian workers were confined to their homes.

International aid workers and truce monitors were awaiting the opening of main roads to the rebel-held regions of Trincomalee for an assessment of the refugee crisis, diplomats in the capital said.

The military launched the bombardments from Russian and Israeli jets after a woman pretending to be pregnant blew herself up at army headquarters in the capital, about 260 kilometers (160 miles) from Trincomalee on Tuesday.

The suicide bombing targeted the head of the army, leaving him severely wounded. He was among 30 people hurt while 10 others died.

After that bombing, three people died and 13 were wounded when the Tigers fired mortar bombs against a naval detachment in the Muttur area, defence ministry spokesman Prasad Samarasinghe said Wednesday.

He denied earlier military reports that the civilians had been killed when an Israeli-built Kfir jet accidentally dropped a bomb on Muttur jetty while attacking suspected Tamil Tiger positions.

The pro-rebel Tamilnet website reported 12 other civilians died when government warplanes struck the rebel-held Sampur area late Tuesday in retaliation for the suicide bombing in Colombo.

Residents said Thursday that the air strikes and long-range shelling of suspected Tamil Tiger positions by government forces had stopped.

They said airforce jets had not been seen over the skies of Trincomalee since carrying out intense bombing on Wednesday morning.

Police confirmed there had been no more artillery attacks.

The relative calm was reported as Sri Lanka's peace broker Norway expressed hopes the island would step back from the brink of full-scale war.

Top peace envoy Erik Solheim said Oslo was trying to salvage the peace process aimed at ending three decades of ethnic bloodshed that has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

"We are working with the parties on an hour-to-hour basis to do whatever possible to bring them back to the negotiating table in Geneva as soon as possible and to put a stop to this violence," he said in Oslo.

Solheim said he did not believe the latest violence signified the end of a ceasefire in place since February 2002.

At least 80 people have died in bombings in the past two weeks while Tamil rebels say 70 civilians have been killed by pro-government militia or security forces, a charge denied by the military.

The Tigers, who are fighting for a Tamil homeland, last week indefinitely pulled out of planned peace talks in Switzerland, accusing the government of attacks on Tamil civilians and complaining about transport arrangements.