Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil victims of a shell attack wait outside a makeshift hospital in Tiger controlled No Fire Zone in Mullivaaykaal, Sri Lanka, Sunday, May 10, 2009. An all-night artillery barrage in Sri Lanka's war zone killed at least 378 civilians and forced thousands to flee to makeshift shelters along the beach, a government doctor said Sunday.The army and Tamil Tiger rebels blamed each other for the barrage, which the doctor said left at least 1,100 people wounded. He said it was the bloodiest day he had seen in months of fighting. (AP Photo)
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lanka's president vowed to end the decades-old war against the Tamil Tiger rebels within 48 hours as the military battled Friday to take complete control of the country's coastline.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa said thousands of civilians still in the war zone will be quickly freed from a tiny slice of land still controlled by the guerrillas, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
"The freedom of the Tamil civilians held hostage by the LTTE is near at hand and the rescue of all civilians in the small patch of land held by the LTTE will be done in 48 hours," Rajapaksa told migrant workers in Jordan on Thursday.
As the fighting raged, hundreds of desperate war refugees escaped the conflict zone and a top U.N. official headed here on an urgent mission to safeguard the tens of thousands of civilians still trapped amid the heavy shelling.
The government has forced the rebels out of the de facto state they once controlled in the north and cornered them in a 1.5-square mile (four-square kilometer) strip of northeastern coastline.
On Friday, two army units were fighting their way down the coast from the north and up from the south in an effort to link up, severing the rebels' last remaining sea outlet and completely encircling them, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.
The two units were only 1.1 miles (1.8 kilometers) apart, he said.
Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama told The Associated Press in Jordan that Sri Lankan soldiers were probably fighting their final battle against the remaining rebel fighters. He said reports have indicated that relatives of top rebel leaders are starting to flee the war zone.
The navy stopped a suspicious boat off the northeastern coast Friday and arrested the wife, son and daughter of the rebels' sea wing leader, who were among 11 people on board, Nanayakkara said.
At least 1,800 more civilians managed to flee rebel-held territory Friday, joining more than 3,700 who waded across a lagoon to escape the day before, Nanayakkara said. The rebels fired on those leaving Thursday, killing four and wounding 14 others, he said.
Families packed onto inner tubes floated across the water, past rows of coiled razor wire, according to photos released by the army.
Mothers climbed out of the water clutching children, and elderly women carried their belongings in handbags. In one photo, dozens of people climbed out of a small speed boat.
About 200,000 civilians have escaped the war zone in recent months and are being held in overwhelmed displacement camps.
The rebels have denied accusations they were holding the civilians as human shields and were shooting at those trying to flee. Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government has barred most journalists and aid workers from the conflict zone.
International concern has grown for tens of thousands of civilians under threat from the heavy artillery bombardments shaking the war zone, and the Red Cross warned of "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe" for the hundreds of wounded trapped without treatment.
Hoping to end the bloodshed, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent his chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, to Sri Lanka for a second time to try to bring the conflict to a peaceful conclusion.
Nambiar is expected to meet with top government officials after he arrives Saturday and push for ways "to secure the safety of the 50,000 to 100,000 civilians remaining inside the combat zone," U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in light of the ongoing war, the United States had raised questions about Sri Lanka's application for a $1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund that the government desperately needs.
"We think that it is not an appropriate time to consider that until there is a resolution," she said in Washington.
Bogollagama said however, countries should be rewarded for fighting terrorism rather than be penalized.
"I think these are times where countries that are countering terrorism successfully should be rewarded. When one has to be rewarded one is denied that opportunity," he said.
"I think a greater degree of understanding will prevail in Sec. Clinton and also in the IMF to look at the unfolding scenario in Sri Lanka and recognize the need for us to go forward."
The U.N. says 7,000 civilians were killed and 16,700 wounded in the fighting from Jan. 20 until May 7, according to a U.N. document given to The Associated Press by a senior diplomat. Since then, doctors in the war zone say more than 1,000 civilians were killed in a week of heavy shelling that rights groups and foreign governments have blamed on Sri Lankan forces. Sri Lanka denies firing heavy weapons into the war zone.
Health workers in the conflict zone remained in their bunkers for a second day Friday because of heavy shelling and gunfire in the area, leaving hundreds of wounded patients untreated in the area's only medical facility, according to a health official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
A Red Cross ferry attempting to deliver desperately needed food aid and evacuate the wounded had to turn back for a third day Thursday because of the violence.
The Red Cross said the trapped civilians inside the war zone were taking cover in bunkers they had dug in the ground and were finding it even more difficult to get scarce drinking water and food.
"We need security and unimpeded access now in order to save hundreds of lives," Pierre Krahenbuhl, the International Committee of the Red Cross' director of operations, said in a statement from Geneva.
Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby contributed to this report from Southern Shuneh, Jordan.