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UK, French ministers press Sri Lanka ceasefire call

The foreign ministers of Britain and France urged Sri Lanka to implement a humanitarian ceasefire with Tamil Tiger rebels in order to allow tens of thousands of trapped civilians to escape the battle zone.

world Updated: Apr 29, 2009 13:59 IST

The foreign ministers of Britain and France urged Sri Lanka on Wednesday to implement a humanitarian ceasefire with Tamil Tiger rebels in order to allow tens of thousands of trapped civilians to escape the battle zone.

The civilians are caught in a tiny area, now less than 10 square km (4 sq miles) of coastline, that is the last redoubt of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who have been fighting a 25-year war with the government.

"Protection of civilians is absolutely paramount at this moment. The LTTE must end preventing civilians leaving the conflict zone and the fighting must stop," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters.

His comments were in line with a European Union call for a ceasefire earlier this week, a position widely taken by the international community but so far resisted by Sri Lanka.

Although the government says it has stopped using heavy weapons and is concentrating only on freeing trapped civilians, it fears a complete ceasefire would give the Tigers space to rearm and regroup.

Miliband denied the international calls for a ceasefire had anything to do with trying to help the Tigers.

"No one in the international community has been calling for a ceasefire or to stop firing to save (Tiger leader Vellupillai) Prabhakaran. The calls have come because of the overwhelming concern with the wellbeing of the civilians."

Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who also want Sri Lanka to provide access to the conflict zone for the United Nations and aid agencies, were speaking after meeting Sri Lankan officials and ahead of a visit to camps for the close to 200,000 who have already escaped the fighting.

Asked about the government response to their requests, Kouchner said: "We insisted, and we insisted, but it is up to our friends to allow it or not."