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Military sees eastern operation winding up, hopes to resettle displaced soon

Military sees eastern operation winding up, hopes to resettle displaced soon

Sri Lanka's military said it expects to be able to resettle tens of thousands of mostly Muslim civilians displaced by fierce fighting in the east by Monday, a week after it launched a major operation to flush ethnic Tamil rebels from the area.About 40,000 people fled their homes in eastern Trincomalee district in late July when the military and Tamil Tiger rebels engaged in a fierce battle over control of the town of Muttur.
Most are now living in cramped and squalid refugee camps in nearby Kantale district, afraid to go home because of the near-nightly shelling and possible attacks by rebels or security forces.
Sri Lanka's Muslim population has largely kept out of the country's more than two-decade conflict between the Sinhalese-dominated state and Tamil Tiger rebels, but because they speak Tamil, they are often suspected of being informers for both sides.
Insurgents are also accused of forcibly evicting Muslims _ the country's second largest ethnic minority after the Tamils _ from areas under their control.
The military insists that its operation launched a week ago to flush rebels from Sampur and four adjoining villages, including Muttur, is based on "humanitarian grounds" so that civilians can return safely to their homes.
The government, however, says Tigers in Sampur have been firing artillery and mortars across the bay at the strategic Trincomalee naval base and that it is a matter of national security to reclaim it.
The near-daily air strikes and shelling have not only sent hundreds more families fleeing, but prevented many from returning to Muttur, the United Nations refugee agency said Saturday.
"We had seen some families returning to their own homes, at least in the daytime, but that movement has now come to a halt," Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UNHCR told reporters in Geneva.
The military said there was no shelling overnight.
"We are quite surprised by this. Since Aug. 26 they have been shelling quite heavily. But over the last 24 hours there has been no confrontation," an officer at the defense ministry's Media Center for National Security said, requesting anonymity, citing policy.
While he would not comment on the success of the operation, or on how far the military had advanced toward Sampur, he said it was likely that all civilians could return to their homes in Muttur by Monday,
"By tomorrow morning, or evening, we hope to be able to resettle all the Muslims," he said.
The military claims to have killed 119 Tigers and wounded 100 more in the combined navy, army and air force operation since Aug. 26. Only 14 soldiers have died, with 92 wounded it says.
The rebels reported 82 deaths _ 50 government soldiers, 12 rebel fighters and 20 civilians.
The Tigers have been battling the government since 1983 for a separate homeland for the country's ethnic Tamil minority who endured decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.
The conflict cost the lives of about 65,000 people until a 2002 cease-fire.
In recent months, Sri Lanka has returned to the brink of full-scale civil war with hundreds of fighters and civilians killed in major offensives. However, neither side has officially withdrawn from the Norway-brokered cease-fire.
On Saturday, Sri Lanka's navy said it sank 12 Tamil rebel boats, including five suicide craft, and killed as many as 100 rebel fighters during a fierce six-hour sea battle off the country's northern coast.
About 220,000 people have fled their homes because of near-daily shelling, airstrikes and artillery fire since April, according to the United Nations.
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