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Sri Lanka Military Says All Civilians Escape War Zone

Sri Lankan troops on May 16 after reportedly capturing the the last patch of coastline in rebel-held Mullaittivu district
(RFE/RL) -- Sri Lanka's military says all civilians have escaped the area where it is fighting separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in a bid to end 25 years of civil war.

The announcement was made a day after Sri Lanka's president declared victory over the separatist rebels.

A spokesman for the Sri Lankan army said on May 17 that during the past three days, more than 50,000 people have fled the war zone in the northeast where the government has launched an all-out military offensive against the Tamil Tigers.

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said that the army had "rescued all the civilians" who, he said, were being held as human shields by the Tamil Tigers.

Sri Lanka's military also said troops killed at least 70 rebels who tried to flee by boat from a narrow patch of land near the coast that has been surrounded by the government troops.

The fate of the rebels’ senior commanders, including the Tamil Tigers' reclusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is unknown. Prabhakaran has in the past vowed not to be taken alive.

The military said the rebel leadership was likely still in the war zone, and that rebel leaders may be planning to commit mass suicide.

In the capital Colombo, United Nations spokesman Gordon Weiss said that the UN is still waiting to see proof that the civilians from the combat zone were safe.

"As far as we understand, there are some 20,000 who have come out since Thursday, and according to UN estimates, there are some 30,000-80,000 people still inside the combat zone,” Weiss said. “It is a tiny area of land, perhaps a third the size of Central Park. There is obviously a very bitter battle being fought over the area at this moment. So we are really waiting to see the final count of civilians to emerge from that area. We expect that there would be a large number of killed and wounded."

‘End’ Of Civil War

On May 17, thousands of Sri Lankan citizens poured onto the streets, dancing and setting off fireworks, to celebrate the reported victory in the quarter-century civil war, described as the longest modern war in Asia.

Many headed to Colombo’s airport to greet the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who cut short a trip to Jordan to return to the island on the morning of May 17.

Rajapaksa declared victory over the Tamil rebels during a speech a day earlier in Jordan, where he was attending a meeting of developing nations.

"I'm proud to announce at this august gathering that my government, with the total commitment of our armed forces, has in an unprecedented humanitarian operation finally defeated the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] militarily,” Rajapaksa said in Jordan. “I will be going back to a country that has been totally freed from the barbaric acts of the LTTE."

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority. Tamils claim they have been marginalized by successive governments led by the Sinhalese majority.

The conflict has left 70,000 dead.

The rebels have been responsible for many suicide attacks and assassinations, including the murder of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The group has been branded as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union, and India, which is home to a large Tamil population.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, who traveled to Sri Lanka earlier this week, was due to meet Sri Lankan government officials on May 17 to try to broker a negotiated end to the fighting.

U.S. President Barack Obama on May 13 called on both sides to protect civilians.