Hundreds of civilians fleeing the fighting between Tamil separatist rebels and the government attempted to enter government-controlled areas in northern Sri Lanka but were driven by guerillas back into rebel-held territory, military officials said Wednesday.
Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said civilians who were heading toward the military's forward defence lines were beaten by the rebels and sent deeper into rebel-held areas.
There was no independent confirmation of the military's claim because the military denies journalists and independent monitors access to the conflict zone, but the number of civilians who arrived in government-controlled areas Tuesday were significantly low. On Tuesday, 784 arrived, compared with more than 6,000 who turned up the previous day.
As government troops pushed further into rebel territory with the aim of recapturing the rebels' few remaining strongholds in Sri Lanka, the plight of civilians has worsened as food and water supplies become scarce, according to civilians who have been escaping.
On Tuesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross used a ferry service to evacuate 356 injured and ill people from the conflict zone.
The civilians were evacuated through a coastal area of which the military does not have full control.
The military said it must capture less than 12 km along the coast to deprive the rebels of control of any coastline.
Rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has been fighting for more than 25 years for a separate state for the Tamil ethnic minority in the northern and eastern parts of majority-Sinhalese Sri Lanka, are now confined to a 150-sq-km area.
The government estimated fewer than 125,000 civilians remained in rebel-controlled areas although UN agencies initially estimated there were about 250,000. About 30,000 have already arrived in government-controlled areas.
The media has not been allowed to speak to them.
Government troops launched their latest military offensives against the LTTE in August 2006. Early last year, the government retook all of the Eastern Province from the LTTE and since then has focused on the north.
More than 13,000 rebels and 3,750 soldiers have been killed since the start of the latest offensive, according to the military.