COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Some 40,000 civilians fled homes in northeastern Sri Lanka to escape government airstrikes on Tamil rebel areas in recent days that have killed at least a dozen people, the rebels said Thursday.
No new strikes were launched Thursday, the Defense Ministry said, following two days of air attacks near the northeastern port of Trincomalee that amounted to the government's biggest military operation since its 2002 cease-fire with Tamil Tiger rebels.
The rebels said at least 12 people were killed and 27 injured.
The strikes followed a suicide bombing targeting the top Sri Lankan army commander on Tuesday and attacks on navy craft the following day — a spasm of violence that had brought the country perilously close to a return of civil war. However, the European team that monitors the island nation's cease-fire said on Wednesday that the accord still stands.
Military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said the highway that connects the south with the Tamil-held north, severed by the government on Wednesday, may be opened later Thursday.
The A-9 highway serves as the only surface link between the regions and there were reports of shortages of petroleum products in the Jaffna Peninsula, the traditional home of Sri Lanka's 3.2 million ethnic minority Tamils.
The rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, said 40,000 people, almost all Tamils, have fled their homes in the northeast and that the rebel movement would try to provide them with shelter.
"This terror atmosphere that has been created throughout the Tamil homeland has shattered the Tamil people," the rebels said in a statement.
The Tamil Tigers fought a two-decade civil war in an attempt to create a Tamil homeland in northeastern Sri Lanka, claiming discrimination by the majority ethnic Sinhalese. A Norway-brokered truce halted large-scale fighting in 2002, but disputes over postwar power-sharing have hindered peace talks, and sporadic violence has raised tensions in recent months.
The government launched an initial wave of airstrikes — its first major military assault since the cease-fire — on Tuesday, hours after an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber targeted the top government military commander in Colombo, wounding the officer and killing nine other people.
The air force struck Tiger bases near the northeastern port of Trincomalee for a second day on Wednesday after navy ships came under rebel attack, Samarasinghe said.
Ulf Henricsson, the Swedish head of the cease-fire monitoring team, has said the truce is still valid despite the hostilities. "Certainly, we still have a valid cease-fire. No one has abrogated it," he said. However, he said that "what is going on is a serious violation of the agreement."