Vatican: Pope appeals for peace in Sri Lanka

Vatican City, 4 Feb. (AKI) - Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday appealed for an end to the fierce conflict between Sri Lankan security forces and Tamil Tiger militants who are fighting for a separate homeland in the north of the country.

At the end of Wednesday's audience at the Vatican, the pope urged both the government and the separatist rebels to lay down their arms and create peace and reconciliation.

"News of the worsening conflict and the growing number of innocent victims induces us to address a pressing appeal to the combatants to show respect for humanitarian law and for people's freedom of movement," Benedict said.

"May they do everything possible to guarantee assistance for the wounded and security for civilians, and enable their most urgent food and health care needs to be satisfied."

The pope's comments came as Sri Lanka faced increasing international pressure from the United States and the European Union to call a ceasefire.

The United Nations, the Red Cross and other local aid organisations have expressed concern that up to 250,000 civilians are trapped in the north-east of the country as the military advances.

Both the UN and the Red Cross also condemned artillery attacks on the last major hospital in rebel-held territory - in the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu in recent days and the UN said it had been hit by cluster bombs. At least 52 people were reportedly killed in the most recent attack there.

The organisations said the hospital had been evacuated after 16 hours of shelling but it is not clear who was behind the attacks.

However, President Mahinda Rajapakse has predicted that militants from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam will be "completely defeated" within days.

"Our troops have given us the opportunity to see the dawn of an honourable peace for the country ... [the] shadows of terrorism have almost been wiped out," he said in a speech to mark the country's 61st anniversary of independence from Britain.

The LTTE has been fighting for a separate Tamil homeland for for more than 25 years. An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

There are 18 million people in Sri Lanka and the majority Sinhalese community are mostly Buddhist.

Members of the Tamil community are generally either Hindu or Roman Catholic, while there is a small community of Muslims.


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