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Civilians trapped between LTTE and army

BRUSSELS, March 9 (UPI) -- The ongoing Sri Lankan army campaign targeting rebels in the north of the country is escalating a humanitarian crisis, the International Crisis Group says.

The Belgium-based non-governmental organization released a report Monday calling on the Sri Lankan government and the rebel group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to bring an immediate halt to the violence so that an estimated 150,000 civilians trapped in the conflict can safely escape, the Crisis Group reported.

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The Sri Lankan army has successfully pushed the LTTE rebels to the last of their strongholds in the north of the country. Despite the success, the civilians trapped in the no-fire zone established by the Sri Lankan government are increasingly being used by LTTE rebels as a shield against army operations, which continue unabated.

The trapped civilians are also facing widespread disease and death from starvation as a result of a lack of humanitarian aid and the collapse of the hospital in the region. The United Nations estimates that more than 2,300 civilians, including as many as 500 children, have been killed in the conflict since late January.

The Crisis Group report calls on the international community to pressure the Sri Lankan government and LTTE leaders to halt the violence and allow both safe passage for civilians who want to leave and distribution of humanitarian aid.

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"The humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka's northern Wanni region is rapidly becoming a catastrophe. ... The Sri Lankan government can no longer use the Tigers' refusal to surrender as an excuse to continue its offensive, nor can the Tigers (LTTE) continue to hold civilians hostage until the government has agreed to its demand for a cease-fire leading to political negotiations," the release said.

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