The United States urged a visiting Sri Lankan official to protect civilians, thousands of whom are trapped by fighting with Tamil Tiger rebels.
Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona, who in Sri Lanka is below the rank of foreign minister, held talks in Washington with Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia.
Boucher "emphasized US concern about the plight of the civilians trapped in the 'no fire zone' in northern Sri Lanka and urged Foreign Secretary Kohona to protect civilians," the State Department said in a statement yesterday.
The United Nations estimates that 100,000 civilians are trapped in a government-designated "no-fire zone" as the Sri Lankan military closes in on Tamil Tiger rebels.
New York-based Human Rights Watch says that civilian casualties are skyrocketing in the so-called safe zone as government forces keep firing inside and the rebels, hoping to keep them hostage, shoot those who try to escape.
The State Department said Boucher also reiterated a call from the co-chairs of Sri Lanka's moribund peace process -- the United States, Japan, the European Union and Norway -- for the Tigers to allow civilians to move freely out of harm's way.
The Sri Lankan military said yesterday that troops had launched "rescue points" just outside the zone from where beleaguered civilians will in theory be able to make a dash for safety.