Tamil Tiger rebels massacred hundreds of civilians — including 200 people from one village — as they tried to flee the war zone in northern Sri Lanka, a former rebel official said in an interview broadcast Wednesday.
The rebels' former spokesman Velayutham Dayanithi, known by his nom de guerre Daya Master, told Sri Lankan state television that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fighters have grown desperate in recent months as the military has driven them from their northern strongholds.
They forcibly recruited children as young as 13, including those who were ill, and held civilians in the area as human shields, killing many who tried to escape, Dayanithi said.
"The Liberation Tigers kept the civilians hostage. Recently they attacked and shot at people who tried to leave Suthanthirapuram (village). Approximately 200 people were killed in this incident," he said. "Later, they said the civilians were killed in government shelling."
The rebels, listed as a terrorist group by the EU and United States, have come under intense international criticism for their conduct in the war. The government has come under pressure as well, with diplomats pressing for a cease-fire to evacuate tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in the war zone.
Dayanithi and an interpreter for the rebels' political wing known as George deserted the rebels and surrendered to government forces last week. They sneaked out of the war zone by mingling with the more than 100,000 civilians who fled the area after the military broke through an earthen fortification on the edge of the tiny coastal strip where the rebels are now cornered.
Took children away
Both men said they had become disillusioned with the rebel leadership after peace talks with the government collapsed in 2006. They said the failure in talks was because the group was too keen to achieve a military victory.
They were unable to immediately leave the rebel movement because leaders banned members from defecting. They did not elaborate, but they likely feared that their lives would be at risk for disobeying.
Dayanithi said the rebels conscripted children. "They did not spare even those sick with heart or kidney problems," he said.
"Parents sometimes attacked those who come for recruitment and the recruiters beat up the parents and took the children away," he said.
Plea for truce
The British and French foreign ministers Wednesday urged Sri Lanka to accept a cease-fire amid concerns for the safety of an estimated 50,000 people still trapped in the war zone.
The visit by Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband was the highest-level trip here by European officials since the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and underscored the growing international concern for the tens of thousands of ethnic Tamils stuck in the war zone.
"Now is the time for the fighting to stop," Miliband told reporters in Colombo. "Protection of civilians is absolutely paramount in our minds."
Miliband and Kouchner later traveled to displacement camps overwhelmed by an influx of an estimated 120,000 war refugees in the past 10 days in the north.
The government has so far rejected calls for a halt to fighting, saying that it is on the verge of crushing the rebels and ending the island's 25-year civil war.