India on Wednesday urged Sri Lanka’s Tamil rebels to "release" civilians, who it said numbered about 70,000 in Sri Lanka’s war zone.
India is ready to help evacuate them, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee told the Indian parliament. “Estimates on the number of civilians trapped vary, but 70,000 or so are estimated to be there now. The LTTE were reportedly using them as human shields,” he said, referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the Tamil Tigers. “As the conflict enters what may be the final phase of military operations, the LTTE would best serve the interest of the Tamils by immediately releasing all civilians and laying down arms,” Mukherjee added. He noted that some civilians had either been caught in cross-fire or “stopped and even killed” by Tamil rebels as they tried to escape.
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Government troops and the Tamil Tigers are locked in a battle over the rebels’ remaining territory in northern Sri Lanka’s Vanni region. The rebels have been fighting for an independent homeland for the country’s ethnic Tamil minority since 1983. Tens of thousands of people have fled the region as government forces have advanced and rebels have been pushed into a smaller and smaller patch of land.