Sri Lankan troops on Saturday kept up their offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels cornered in the northeast, the defence ministry said, ignoring mounting international appeals for a ceasefire.
The island's government accused the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of firing heavy artillery and mortars from an area it has designated as a civilian "safe zone," and that its troops were retaliating.
The United Nation says up to 100,000 civilians are trapped in the area in "dire humanitarian conditions." "The LTTE terrorists continued mounting heavy artillery and mortar attacks from the no-fire zone at troops now advancing towards the general area of Vellamullivaikkal," the defence ministry said.
It said at least eight rebels were killed and another nine wounded in fighting on Friday, but did not say if its troops suffered any casualties.
The latest fighting came as the UN renewed its call for a fresh ceasefire to allow civilians trapped in the conflict zone to get to safety. "UNICEF is calling for a ceasefire and for a humanitarian pause which allows humanitarian workers to access the conflict zone and for civilians who are trapped in this zone to be allowed to seek refuge in secured zones," said Veronique Taveau, spokeswoman for the UN's agency for children.
Ron Redmond, spokesman for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, also called on the Tamil Tigers to "immediately allow" civilians to move to safe areas. "Those fleeing into government-controlled areas provide similar accounts of the dire humanitarian conditions prevalent inside the area. "The situation has worsened due to the ongoing heavy rains and winds, with most families living in flooded areas under damaged tarpaulin tents and beneath trees," he added.
The offensive is aimed at finishing off the last of the Tigers, who are facing defeat after 37 years of fighting for an independent Tamil homeland.