updated 4/19/2009 12:50:42 PM ET 2009-04-19T16:50:42

Sri Lankan soldiers killed 17 Tamil Tiger separatists in fighting to clear a road that would give the military access to remaining rebel territory where thousands of civilians are trapped, the Defense Ministry said Sunday.

More than 2,800 civilians were able to flee the war zone on Saturday, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.

The rebels, who once controlled a de facto state in parts of the country's north and east, have retreated to a tiny slice of land that the government had earlier declared a "no-fire zone" for civilians fleeing the fighting in the island's nation's civil war.

The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 civilians are trapped in the area, which measures only 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers), and has voiced concern for their safety.

The Defense Ministry said 17 rebels were killed and 22 wounded in offensives Saturday aimed at clearing new escape routes for the civilians and a road link for the military to enter the zone. It did not say if there were military casualties.

Human rights groups have accused the rebels of using the civilians as human shields and the government of indiscriminately shelling populated areas and disregarding the civilians' safety. Both sides deny the allegations.

The government suspended its offensive for two days last week to allow civilians to leave, but only a few hundred departed.

Authorities have since rejected widespread international calls for a longer cease-fire to allow humanitarian workers to move the civilians to safety.

The U.N. estimates that some 4,500 noncombatants have been killed in the last three months amid fierce fighting as government forces have closed in on the rebels, aiming to bring a final end to the 25-year civil war.

The rebels have been fighting to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have faced decades of marginalization by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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