Sri Lanka has rejected a ceasefire offered by Tamil Tigers as the top United Nations humanitarian official pleaded for the safety of thousands of civilians still trapped in the war zone.


Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse said there was no need for a truce as the military was on the verge of defeating the separatist forces, who have fought for 37 years for the creation of an independent Tamil homeland.

“What is the need for a ceasefire when they are running away? They should first lay down arms, surrender and let the people go,” Rajapakse said.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are accused of holding thousands of civilians hostage, said its ceasefire was “in the face of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis” and in response to international appeals.

“All of LTTE\’s offensive military operations will cease with immediate effect,” the rebels said in a statement. Rebel spokesman, S. Puleethevan, said the Tigers would maintain their ceasefire only if the government reciprocated.

“It is purely for humanitarian purposes and the duration will depend on the response of the Sri Lankan government,” he told AFP by telephone from the last patch of rebel-held territory in the northeast of the island.

The visiting UN humanitarian chief John Holmes had earlier on Sunday appealed to both sides to stop the violence, saying that recent fighting had taken “a terrible toll” on civilians.

His appeal came hours after the US and the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised nations for the first time weighed in with calls for an immediate ceasefire in Sri Lanka.

Holmes held talks with Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who said they discussed the plight of civilians and a joint appeal to raise 100 million dollars for urgent relief operations.

The UN believes up to 50,000 non-combatants are trapped in a strip of jungle where Sri Lankan soldiers have surrounded the remnants of the once powerful LTTE.

“We need a new humanitarian pause to get aid and aid workers into the combat zone,” Holmes said in a statement.

As foreign pressure mounted on Sri Lanka to halt its onslaught, the British government announced that the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Sweden would visit Sri Lanka for talks with local authorities.

Britain\’s David Miliband, France\’s Bernard Kouchner and Sweden\’s Carl Bildt will visit Sri Lanka Wednesday.

Miliband said in a statement his priority would be to address the humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka and the continuing risk to civilians in the conflict zone.

He reiterated calls for a ceasefire to allow civilians to move to safety.

He also urged the government to allow civilian oversight of all internally displaced people (IDP) as soon as they left the battle zone; to improve conditions and access to medical facilities in IDP camps; to allow international monitoring and free movement in and out of the camps.

The British government said last week that junior international development minister Mike Foster would go to Sri Lanka Monday.

The Tigers controlled about a third of the island in late 2006 but are now penned into a coastal area measuring just 10 square kilometres (four square miles).

Their founder and leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is believed to be among the remaining Tiger fighters who have made a last stand, but the rebel spokesman declined to confirm the reports.

Streams of people have left rebel territory over the last week after the latest military advances, and the UN says 100,000 Tamil civilians who have fled the conflict zone are being detained in government-run camps.

Soldiers captured another village on the edge of the Tigers\’ territory on Sunday and freed about 500 people held hostage, the government said. It said 12 militants were also killed when the navy sank three boats on Sunday while 23 rebels had surrendered to security forces.

The military successes have come at a huge cost, rights groups say, with the UN estimating as many as 6,500 non-combatants may have been killed and another 14,000 wounded in the fighting so far this year.