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Concern grows for Sri Lankan civilians caught up in civil war

CONCERN for the safety of Sri Lankan civilians has increased in recent weeks as the government of Sri Lanka pushed ahead with its offensive against the Tamil Tigers and end the nation's quarter-century civil war.

On Monday, the military broke through rebel fortifications on the edge of a previously declared "no-fire" zone along the northeastern coast, sparking an exodus of more than 100,000 civilians.

The rebels said at least 1,000 civilians were killed in the battle. The Red Cross said hundreds had been killed.

The military said it was pushing ahead with its offensive, engaging the rebels in heavy fighting Thursday in the tiny coastal strip still held by the Tamil Tigers, who once controlled a vast area of northern Sri Lanka.

At least 6,432 civilians have been killed in the intense fighting over the past three months and 13,946 wounded, according to a private United Nations document circulated among diplomatic missions in Sri Lanka in recent days. The casualties were reported as "verified data" in the document, which was given to The Associated Press by a foreign diplomat yesterday.

The UN has declined to publicly release its casualty figures and had no immediate comment on the document.

The level of civilian deaths has increased dramatically as the fighting has worn on, according to the UN. An average of 33 civilians were killed each day at the end of January, a number that jumped to 116 by April, the document reported. More than 5,500 of those killed were inside a government-declared "no-fire" zone, the report said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would send a team of humanitarian experts to Sri Lanka to monitor the situation. The government agreed in principal to accept such a team but the details needed to be worked out, said Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe.

More than 106,000 civilians have fled the fighting since Monday, according to the government. The Doctors Without Borders aid group said those fleeing included large numbers of people suffering from blast, mine and gunshot wounds.

Aid workers and diplomats said the mass exodus of civilians was overwhelming government facilities.


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