Over 1,000 people escape in dinghies

With Sea Tigers almost entirely committed to face the advancing army, the coastline north of Mullaitivu town has become the launching pad for civilians fleeing the LTTE-held territory now down to about 25 sq. km.

The absence of a cohesive Sea Tiger deployment in the area has facilitated the getaway of hundreds of families this year. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that the rapid increase in the number of escapees was evidence of the deteriorating LTTE military power. The army had secured commanding positions close to the civilian safety zone, he said, adding that the growing military presence would help the civilians to escape.

Responding to our queries, the war veteran said that once the army reached the area immediately outside the civilian safety zone, the people would break out. Had they remained in control would they allow hundreds of civilians to reach army lines, he said, adding that on Saturday alone 1,055 persons including 371 children had arrived at Puthukudirippu.

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told The Island that 51,558 persons had reached the government-held area as the army gradually destroyed the LTTE. He said that the sick and wounded evacuated from Puthumathalan with the help of the ICRC, too, had been categorised as people reaching the government-held area. Dismissing figures given by various interested parties, the Brigadier said that the actual number of civilians trapped on the eastern flank could be around 60,000.

The Navy has deployed a substantial force to help fibre glass dinghies launched from the area north of Mullaitivu.

The Navy said that units had rescued nine dinghies carrying 108 men, women and children off the Chundikulam seas on Saturday afternoon. According to statistics provided by the Navy, a total of 1,140 men, women and children had been rescued while they were escaping in 67 dinghies. The Navy said that they had been rescued in six days since March 15.

The 12th batch of 455 civilians including 121 children had been evacuated from Puthumathalan with the help of the ICRC on March 20th, the Navy said.

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