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Sri Lanka vows shelling will stop

THE Sri Lankan government, under intense pressure to prevent civilian deaths, said yesterday it would immediately stop air strikes and artillery attacks but rejected calls for a cease-fire in its war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The effect of the decision was not immediately clear. The military says it stopped using such weapons weeks ago, but a rebel official said government air strikes continued even after the decision was announced. Reporters are barred from the war zone.

The statement came a day after Sri Lanka brushed aside the rebels' call for a truce as a desperate ploy by the beleaguered insurgents to avoid certain destruction. The rebels and tens of thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians remain cornered in a small strip of land along the northeast coast.

The UN says nearly 6,500 civilians have been killed over the past three months, and top international diplomats have pressed for a humanitarian truce to allow the remaining noncombatants trapped in the area to flee.

The government said in a statement yesterday that "combat operations have reached their conclusion," and it instructed the military "to end the use of heavy caliber guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons which could cause civilian casualties."

The government, which accuses the rebels of holding the civilians as human shields, said it would continue its efforts to free civilians.

The decision was surrounded by confusion.

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said the military had ceased using the weapons weeks ago to avoid endangering civilians. "We didn't use air (strikes), we didn't use (heavy) guns, we didn't use tanks. We used only small arms," he said.

But rebel spokesman Seevaratnam Puleedevan told the TamilNet Website that the military had launched two air strikes in the small, coastal village of Mullivaikal even after the announcement and accused the government of "deceiving the international community."

Government officials declined to elaborate further on the statement, but another statement posted on the Defense Ministry Website said Sri Lanka planned to press ahead with its offensive.

Meanwhile, the top UN humanitarian official, John Holmes, met Sri Lanka's foreign minister yesterday to express concern for the estimated 50,000 trapped civilians amid reports of growing cases of starvation and casualties among the population. He then visited a village south of the war zone to inspect displacement camps overwhelmed by the massive influx of war refugees in recent days.

The British government also said it was sending Foreign Secretary David Miliband to Sri Lanka with his French and Swedish counterparts tomorrow to mediate the conflict.


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