Under intense international pressure to prevent further civilian deaths, the Sri Lankan government said Monday it would immediately stop airstrikes and artillery attacks in its war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.
The effect of the decision was not immediately clear. The military says it stopped using such weapons weeks ago, while a rebel official said government airstrikes continued even after the decision was announced. Reporters are barred from the war zone.
The statement came a day after Sri Lanka flatly rejected the rebels' call for a cease-fire as a desperate ploy by the beleaguered insurgents to avoid certain destruction. The rebels and tens of thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians remain cornered in a small strip of land along the northeast coast.
The United Nations says nearly 6,500 civilians have been killed over the past three months, and top international diplomats have pressed for a humanitarian truce to allow the remaining noncombatants trapped in the area to flee.
The government said in a statement Monday "that combat operations have reached their conclusion," and it instructed the military "to end the use of heavy caliber guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons which could cause civilian casualties."
The government, which accuses the rebels of holding the civilians as human shields, said it would continue its efforts to free them, the statement said.
The decision was surrounded by confusion.
Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said the military had ceased using the weapons weeks ago to avoid endangering civilians.
"We didn't use air (strikes), we didn't use (heavy) guns, we didn't use tanks. We used only small arms," he said.
But rebel spokesman Seevaratnam Puleedevan told the TamilNet Web site that the military had launched two airstrikes in the small, coastal village of Mullivaikal even after the announcement and accused the government of "deceiving the international community."
Meanwhile, the top U.N. humanitarian official, John Holmes, met Sri Lanka's foreign minister Monday to express concern for the estimated 50,000 trapped civilians amid reports of growing cases of starvation and casualties among the population. He was then scheduled to visit a village south of the war zone to inspect displacement camps overwhelmed by the massive influx of war refugees in recent days.
The British government also said it was sending Foreign Secretary David Miliband to Sri Lanka with his French and Swedish counterparts Wednesday to attempt to mediate the conflict and address the dangers faced by civilians. Sri Lanka has rejected previous British mediation offers.
Government forces stand poised to crush the rebels and end this Indian Ocean island nation's quarter-century civil war. A recent government offensive forced the rebels out of their strongholds in the north and cornered them in a narrow coastal strip less than 4 miles long.
Expressing concern for the civilians, the rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire Sunday, saying all offensive military operations would "cease with immediate effect."
They asked the international community to pressure the government to halt its offensive as well, saying the "humanitarian crisis can only be overcome by the declaration of an immediate cease-fire," according to a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press.
Government dismisses rebels' call
The government, which says the Tamil Tigers are holding the civilians as human shields, rejected the appeal and accused the rebels of playing for time.
"This is a joke," Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said.
Both sides have declared previous cease-fires during the recent fighting, but they did little more than briefly interrupt the war's momentum because the other side continued fighting.
Early Monday, the military attacked Mullivaikal from the north, south and west, TamilNet reported. The village is in a no-fire zone the government demarcated inside rebel territory as a civilian refuge.
The Web site said the area was densely populated with tens of thousands of civilians.
The Tamil Tigers, listed as a terrorist group by many Western nations, have been fighting since 1983 for an ethnic Tamil state in the north and east after decades of marginalization by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.