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Two top LTTE leaders surrender; 95,000 escape war zone

Two key Tamil Tiger officials surrendered today as Sri Lankan troops pressed a final offensive against the rebels. Among the top rebels who turned themselves in was the Tigers' chief spokesman Velayudam Dayanidi, better known as Daya Master. Another official, who was an aide to the late head of the Tigers' political wing, SP Thamilselvan, also surrendered. Listen to podcastaudio | See pics: Great Escape
By Amal Jayasinghe | AFP, Colombo
UPDATED ON APR 22, 2009 09:15 PM IST

Two key Tamil Tiger officials surrendered Wednesday as Sri Lankan troops pressed a final offensive against the rebels despite an international outcry over the fate of trapped civilians.

Among the top rebels who turned themselves in was the Tigers' main mouthpiece to the outside world, their chief spokesman Velayudam Dayanidi, better known as Daya Master.

Another official, who was an aide to the late head of the Tigers' political wing, S.P. Thamilselvan, also surrendered.

The government's defence spokesman said more than 80,000 people had fled the shrinking patch of territory still controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), saying troops were "rescuing" and not harming civilians caught up in the war.

"Our operations to rescue civilians is continuing," Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters, describing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a spent force with just 12 square kilometres (five square miles) of land left.

"The LTTE has lost all its military capabilities. They are fighting a losing battle," he said, adding the government also "strongly believes" that Tamil Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, 54, was still in the area.

The defence ministry gave Prabhakaran and his fighters until Tuesday to surrender, but the rebels ignored the deadline and have continued to fight.

The LTTE, who have been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1972, has acknowledged losing ground. But the group has accused the government of killing 1,000 civilians in recent days.

The military insists it has aided the escape of 81,420 men, women and children this week. It said those fleeing were fired on by the rebels, who are alleged to have kept villagers to use as human shields.

The rival claims are hard to verify as independent reporters are not allowed near the conflict zone, but aid agencies have painted a grim picture.

"The situation is nothing short of catastrophic," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, operations director for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"What we are seeing is intense fighting in a very small area overcrowded with civilians who have fled there," he said.

He estimated there could be tens of thousands more people still inside rebel-held territory, while facilities for those who had reached relative safety were overstretched.

The United States and other nations have urged both Sri Lankan troops and Tiger rebels not to fire indiscriminately, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has asked that UN staff be allowed to enter the area for relief operations.

"The casualties are certainly in the thousands and have been fairly consistently high running throughout the last couple of months, as the patch of (LTTE) territory has narrowed and really diminished," said Gordon Weiss, the UN spokesman in Colombo.

The apparent endgame in Sri Lanka has triggered protests around the world, with up to 30,000 Tamil demonstrators clogging the Canadian capital Ottawa to press for mediation.

Similar rallies have been held in London and Paris.

The LTTE were once considered as one of the world's most efficient guerrilla outfits, lording over a third of Sri Lanka's territory and running a de facto mini-state.

A Norwegian-brokered truce between the government and the rebels began falling apart in December 2005, and fighting since then has seen the progressive collapse of the rebel army.

Last month the UN's human rights chief said both sides in the conflict may be guilty of war crimes.



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