At least 650 civilians fled areas controlled by Tamil rebels in northern Sri Lanka and crossed over to military-held areas on Wednesday as government troops pushed towards the last militant stronghold, military officials said.
Two separate groups of civilians arrived in the military-controlled Paranthan and Kevil areas, more than 390 kilometres north of the capital Colombo on Wednesday, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
One of the groups comprised 333 people, including 133 children, while about 320 people were in the second batch.
Minority Tamils living in the rebel-held areas have been defying rebel orders by entering military-controlled areas over the past few weeks, but an estimated 300,000 civilians are still living in the rebel-held Mullaitivu district and in parts of Kilinochchi district.
Nanayakkara said with the two new groups who arrived on Wednesday, the number of refugees has increased to around 1,560 since Jan 1.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has appealed to the rebels to allow civilians to leave the areas. "The people should be given the choice to decide whether they want to stay or leave," Rajapaksa told foreign correspondents Monday.
He said government troops were taking all precautions to avoid civilian casualties.
But Tamil rebels have claimed that civilians have been hit in air and artillery attacks during military operations.
The government is preparing to receive a large number of refugees in the next few weeks as troops step up their advance towards the last rebel stronghold at Mullaitivu on the north-eastern coast, where rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is believed to be hiding.
Preparations are underway to accommodate the civilians in camps established in the government-controlled Vavuniya area, 240 kilometres north of Colombo.
Troops launched operations to recapture rebel-held areas in the north and east in August 2006 and since then the entire Eastern Province and the western half of Northern Province have been captured.
An estimated 12,000 rebels and 3,000 soldiers have been killed, the military said, but there has been no independent confirmation of the casualty figures.