Tens of thousand of civilians are trapped in Sri Lanka, many caught in the crossfire between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels who have been cornered on a tiny spit of land the size of New York's Central Park.
Over the past week, shelling has taken civilian lives, including – according to The Associated Press – as many as 100 deaths from a strike on a makeshift hospital. On Thursday, Sri Lankan troops were trying to pierce Tamil Tiger defenses to reach some tens of thousands of civilians held by the rebels as a buffer against government assaults.
Scores of civilians tried to escape the war zone by crossing a lagoon that forms the front lines of the fighting.
"As of this afternoon, we have begun getting reports of thousands of people ... wading across the lagoon, which suggests government forces have managed to get close enough to be able to give these people the chance to break out of the combat zone," Gordon Weiss, a U.N. spokesman in Sri Lanka, tells NPR's Melissa Block.
Weiss says that if the government succeeds in reaching the civilians in the next couple of days, then it will be no time before the rebel-held area falls.
"In fact, there are people saying that it will happen in the next 48 hours," he says.
There is good indication the rebels, who are fighting for a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, are holding civilians by force, Weiss says. He notes that civilians who have fled have told stories of being forced back or shot at as they tried to escape.
"It's pretty clear that at least for a very large proportion of the people in there, they were there against their will," Weiss says.
Inadequate Aid For Thousands
The heavy shelling has led health workers to abandon the only hospital in the war zone. Weiss says he believes many thousands of people are badly wounded around the premises.
"We know anecdotally many people were dying from relatively small wounds that would have ordinarily been treatable except for the fact that there were not adequate medical supplies," he says.
Little aid has made it into the area. Weiss reports that people escaping show severe signs of malnutrition as well as untreated wounds.
"We know from doctors inside the zone with whom we've been in regular contact that they have virtually no medical supplies, but there are thousands of people who are wounded and waiting for proper attention," Weiss says. "It's become a truly desperate situation for people inside the combat zone."
Rebel Losses Unlikely To End Civil War
The government hopes that the fighting, and the losses inflicted on the rebels, can end the 25-year-old civil war. Weiss, however, says it is unlikely the fighting is at its end point.
"Nobody thinks it's the end of the problem or the end of the Tamil Tigers for that matter," he says. "There are still political grievances held by the Tamil population in Sri Lanka."
Weiss adds: "There's still a very large, angry and well-heeled Tamil diaspora outside the country, which has been the lifeblood of the Tamil Tigers."