A United Nations convoy brought more than 200 wounded civilians to safety Thursday, carrying them out of a war zone in Northern Sri Lanka where both government and rebel forces are being accused of war crimes.
They were the first civilians to escape intense fighting over the past 10 days near the town of Mullaittivu, the latest stronghold of the rebel Tamil Tigers to fall to a government offensive aimed at ending Asia's longest-running war.
The Tigers, who have been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland for 26 years, are now boxed into a 100-square-mile (300 sq. km) patch of jungle in the far North of Sri Lanka. As they have retreated they have forced civilians to fall back with their troops, using them as human shields, according to international human rights groups. Some 250,000 civilians are thought still to be trapped in the area.
At the same time, the International Commitee of the Red Cross, the only international aid group that has been allowed into the conflict zone for the past three months, has also accused government soldiers of breaking humanitarian law by preventing relief workers from reaching trapped civilians.
Both sides in the protracted fighting have often been accused of violating the rules of war, most notably by using child soldiers.
Though government officials in Colombo say that the strikingly fast progress the Army has made in recent weeks signals the imminent destruction of the rebel forces, other observers are less sure that the war is really about to end. Even if the Army takes all the towns from which the Tigers once administered the territory they occupied, the rebels might well simply melt into the jungle and pursue a guerrilla war that neither side could win.