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Sri Lanka says civilians evacuated from war zone, rebels trapped


COLOMBO, May 17 (RIA Novosti) - Sri Lanka's military said on Sunday that the tens of thousands of civilians who had been held hostage by Tamil Tiger separatists in the country's northern war zone have escaped, and that the rebels are now trapped.

The military earlier said that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants had been shooting at civilians who attempted to leave a small coastal strip in the country's northeast.

"More than 50,000 people have come out of that area in the past three days and with that we have rescued all the civilians held as a human shield by the Tigers", army spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara told reporters.

The military said that on Sunday at least 70 rebels were shot dead, and that their access to the sea has been cut off.

No reporters or aid workers have been allowed near the zone, so Sri Lanka's claims have yet to be independently confirmed.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has declared the army's victory over the insurgents, following 25 years of civil war in the south Asian island nation. His announcement sparked street celebrations in Colombo on Sunday morning.

According to United Nations data, 7,000 civilians have died in the conflict so far this year. International rights groups have accused the military of shelling the rebels in the war zone, killing large numbers of civilians who were being used as human shields. The government has denied the allegation.

Sri Lanka earlier rejected Western calls to end the violence.

In an interview with RIA Novosti last week, Defense Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said: "We have been waging this war for 30 years, and the worst is behind us. Now, when we are destroying them, we do not want to leave the smallest chance for them to come back."

"The people and the government feel rage when outsiders, particularly certain countries, which either do not understand what is going on or are motivated by something else, try to stop our counter-terrorist operation, and try to give militants a second chance. They do this, hiding behind a 'humanitarian catastrophe'," he said.

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