The Tamil Tigers on Friday began taking civilians trapped in the war-torn East Sri Lankan Muslim town of Mutur to an exit point, so that they could go to places where international emergency relief agencies worked, the rebel group's Military Spokesman, Ilanthirayan, told Hindustan Times.
"We are now taking the people to Kiliveddy bridge, from where they can go to places where emergency assistance organised by international agencies may be available," he said.
International relief agencies have been gearing themselves up for relief work.
The Norwegian government, which is brokering peace in Sri Lanka, has announced a grant of $1.5 million for emergency relief work.
The money would be channelled through the Red Cross and other NGOs, Oslo said in a statement on Thursday.
35, 000 displaced, 10,000 flee
Ilanthirayan did not have exact figures about the number of refugees. All he could say was that "almost the entire population of Mutur" had been displaced.
The Tamil newspapers put the number of displaced at 35,000 and said that these had sought refuge in schools, mosques and other public places.
According to an informed source in Trincomalee town, which is across the Koddiyar Bay, about 10, 000 people had already left Mutur.
The fighting had not spared public places, generally considered inviolable.
Twenty-two people were killed when the Mutur Arabic College and the Thoppur Al Nuriya School were shelled on Thursday.
Operation to highlight Mutur's grievances
Ilanthirayan said that the LTTE was concerned about the plight of the people of Mutur who were being subjected to "random and indiscriminate" shelling by the Sri Lankan forces even on Friday.
Like the Sri Lankan government spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwela, Ilanthirayan maintained that the rebels were engaged in a "humanitarian operation" to bring to the attention of the world, the "plight of the people of Mutur".
He said that the Sri Lankan government, which waxed eloquent about the inhuman act of closing of the sluice gates of the Mavil Aaru anicut (dam) by the LTTE, had put an embargo on drinking water and baby food going to the Tamil people of Mutur East and Ecchchilampattu.
"Ours is a defensive and humanitarian operation to highlight the grievances of the people of Mutur, " Ilanthirayan, alias Marshal, said.
Fighting on to capture jetty
On the on-going military operations in the Mutur area, the rebel spokesman said that the town was in the hands of the LTTE, contrary to the claims of the Sri Lankan armed forces.
Asked which side was controlling the Mutur jetty, Spokesman Ilanthirayan said that it was in the hands of the LTTE, though the Sri Lankan navy was trying to take it back.
Both sides are using artillery and mortars, besides small arms. The Sri Lankan army is using the formidable Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRL) also.
No let up foreseen
There was a lull in the fighting in the morning of Friday, but there was no guarantee that it would not resume, even though the Norwegian peace envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer was in Colombo, meeting the Sri Lankan Prime Minister.
On Thursday, the Sri Lankan DefenCe Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwela said that the government could not accede to peace broker Norway's demand that the two warring parties withdraw to the February 2002 positions when the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was signed.
Rambukwela said that there was no question of withdrawal, because what the government was conducting was not a military operation but a humanitarian one aimed at breaking the LTTE's water blockade, which was ruining the lives of 15, 000 peasant families in the Mavil Aaru area.
For the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, the Mavil Aaru issue is a prestigious political issue.
It has to get the sluice gates opened, to fulfill the Southern Sri Lankan people's expectations from him. They are his main political constituency.
The government has also sacrificed much in terms of men and material on the cause in the past 10 days.
The government had carried out aerial bombing for more than seven or eight days and in the current operations, at least 100 combatants and civilians might have died. All this could not be in vain.
5 LTTE killed in Karuna raid
Five LTTE cadres of the mainstream Prabhakaran group were killed and three captured, when the breakaway Karuna group raided former's camp at Palachankeni near Vakarai in the Eastern district of Batticaloa on Friday.
The Karuna's group's spokesman Thuyavan told Hindustan Times that the captured cadres were in the age group 16 to 20.
The operation was conducted under the overall command of Markan.