The White House urged an immediate ceasefire in Sri Lanka and voiced deep concerns over alleged violations of international humanitarian law.

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It was the first statement by President Barack Obama\’s White House on Sri Lanka as concerns grow for the fate of thousands of people trapped in a small strip of jungle.

“The United States is deeply concerned about the plight of innocent civilians caught up in the conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers and the mounting death toll,” the White House said.

“We call on both sides to stop fighting immediately and allow civilians to safely leave the combat zone,” it said.

Calls to observe international humanitarian law

The White House urged Sri Lanka to halt shelling in a designated safe zone and allow aid groups and journalists to see civilians who have escaped.

“We call on both sides to strictly adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law. We are very concerned about reports of violations, and take these allegations very seriously,” it said.

Sri Lanka\’s military says it is close to defeating the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, who launched a bloody campaign in 1972 to create a separate homeland on the island for the Tamil minority.

But the White House warned against sowing the seeds of future conflict on the Sinhalese-majority island.

“It would compound the current tragedy if the military end of the conflict only breeds further enmity and ends hopes for reconciliation and a unified Sri Lanka in the future,” the White House said.

Sri Lankan military defiant

The government has designated an area as a safe zone and says tens of thousands of civilians have escaped. But it says top Tigers including supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran are hiding among the civilians.

The government has resisted appeals to end its offensive, including from the US State Department, and has also turned down requests to send humanitarian teams into the area.

State Department officials earlier said they were hoping Sri Lanka would grant an amnesty to low-ranking Tamil cadre to allow a pause in the fighting and an organized surrender.

The White House said it was working with international partners to help care for civilians who have fled the fighting. The United Nations earlier said it was sending its humanitarian chief John Holmes to Sri Lanka Saturday.