Pace of refugees fleeing Sri Lanka fighting picks up

Almost 400 people escaped Sri Lanka's fast-shrinking war zone and a cabinet minister lay in a critical condition after a suicide blast blamed on the rebel Tamil Tigers, officials said on Wednesday.

Sri Lanka's military has encircled the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a mere 37 sq km (15 sq miles) on the island nation's northeastern coast and is fighting to finish a separatist war that has raged off and on since 1983, reported Reuters.

Soldiers received 378 fleeing Tamil civilians on Tuesday, bringing the total to 1,054 since Friday, the military said. More than 36,000 fled in early February when troops reached a former no-fire zone but the pace slowed to almost none in recent weeks.

"Now it's picking up again," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. He said 38,900 have fled this year.

There are tens of thousands still in the war zone. Aid agencies, rights groups and the government have urged the LTTE to stop holding them by force as human shields. The government says 70,000 are there, while the Red Cross says there are 150,000.

"One thing LTTE is finding difficult to control now is the people, but then still they are of course surrounded by the LTTE and some people maybe due to fear will not run," Nanayakkara said.

The Tigers insist people are staying out of choice, but refugees who have escaped say the rebels shoot those who try to run and are conscripting people, including children as young as 15, to fight with almost no training.

The LTTE accuses the government of intentionally shelling civilians, which the military denies. It says troops have slowed their offensive to protect civilians.

The government has rejected a Tiger ceasefire call as a ploy to buy time to re-arm, and has pledged safe passage to civilians.

Although few doubt the military shortly will destroy the Tigers as a conventional force, equally few expect the group to stop carrying out guerrilla attacks far from the war zone. A suicide bombing killed 14 in southern Sri Lanka on Tuesday.

Post and Telecommunications Minister Mahinda Wijesekara remained on life support in a Colombo hospital after the bombing, blamed on the LTTE, outside a mosque in Godapitiya.

The attack targeted Muslims and a group of six ministers at a Muslim celebration. Wijesekara was the only minister hurt.

"We have put him in the intensive care unit after the surgery and he is on the ventilator. It's too early to say anything," Colombo National Hospital director Dr. Hector Weerasinghe said. At least 34 others were wounded in the explosion.

The LTTE has not commented on the explosion. It rarely admits to such attacks despite proving the effectiveness of using the suicide blast as a weapon of war and inventing the "suicide jacket," an explosives-laden vest.

The Tigers' use of hundreds of suicide bombings over the 25-year war has landed them on U.S., EU, Canadian and Indian terrorist lists. It also has created a high-security environment where Tamils are closely scrutinized by the military.

The government says the checks are necessary because the Tigers repeatedly have used people disguised as civilians -- particularly women -- to carry out the attacks.

Many Tamils say that scrutiny contributes to feelings of marginalization. The minority group has long complained that successive governments led by the Sinhalese majority have sidelined them since independence from Britain in 1948.

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