Tens of thousands of civilians trapped in Sri Lanka's northern war zone are facing starvation, the Tamil Tiger rebels warned Saturday as the UN sent its top humanitarian official to assess the crisis.
Reports of chaos in the northern war zone have increased in recent days as the Sri Lankan military pushed forward with its offensive to destroy the rebel group and end this Indian Ocean island nation's bloody, quarter century civil war.
More than 100,000 civilians have fled the tiny coastal strip still under rebel control since Monday, flooding hospitals in the north and overwhelming government-run displacement camps, according to aid workers.
The UN says another 50,000 civilians remain trapped in the war zone. The Tamil Tigers, who say the number of trapped civilians is three times that estimate, said in a statement Saturday that food stocks in the region had dwindled, making starvation "imminent."
Dr Thangamuttu Sathyamurthi, a top government health official in the war zone, said on Friday that there was a severe shortage of food and medicine in the area and people were dying of starvation.
The rebels called on the United Nations and the international community to ensure that food supplies are swiftly sent to the area.
"We fear that further delay can result in a crisis similar to that faced in Darfur or even deadlier," the group said in a statement published on the rebel-allied TamilNet Web site.
The government has barred aid groups and journalists from the war zone since last year, arguing that it was too dangerous for them to work. With the crisis growing, the UN sent its top humanitarian official, John Holmes, to Sri Lanka on Saturday to look into the welfare of the civilians, UN deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.
The humanitarian situation "continues to be critical, civilian casualties have been tragically high and their suffering horrendous," Okabe said. The UN says nearly 6,500 civilians have been killed in the fighting over the past three months.
The rebels, listed as a terror group by many Western nations, have been fighting since 1983 for an ethnic Tamil state in the north and east after decades of marginalization by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. After more than three years of intense fighting, the government stands on the verge of crushing the group.