COLOMBO (Reuters) – The United Nations said on Monday Tamil Tiger rebels forcibly recruited another of its local workers in Sri Lanka's war zone along with three dependents of U.N. staff, including a 16-year-old girl.
The United Nations said the forced conscriptions came at the weekend, when nearly 2,000 people fled Sri Lanka's shrinking war zone as troops fought toward the final showdown in a 25-year war with the separatist Tamil Tigers.
It is the second time the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have forced a U.N. worker into its ranks. The United Nations and witnesses say hundreds of civilians have been forced to fight or build defenses against a military onslaught.
"The U.N. in Sri Lanka has protested to the LTTE that U.N. national staff, as well as children in general, are protected under national and international law from recruitment by armed groups, and has called for their immediate release," a U.N. statement said.
Sri Lanka's military has encircled the LTTE in 30 square km (12 sq mile) of the Indian Ocean island's northeast, where aid agencies say there are tens of thousands of people trapped in increasingly desperate circumstances.
The United Nations has said some 2,800 have been killed in heavy fighting since the end of January. The government rejects those numbers as unsubstantiated.
By Monday, soldiers were said to be within a kilometer of a no-fire zone where the government says there are 70,000 people. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) puts the number at 150,000 civilians.
"They (troops) are closing into the safe zone in certain areas," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. At least seven Tigers were killed on Sunday, he said.
He said 902 people came on foot to army-held areas on Sunday, while another 62 fled by boat. On Saturday, 1,015 came out, more than 420 of them by boat with the assistance of the ICRC.
Among those who came out on Sunday was one of 15 United Nations workers forcibly kept in the war zone by the Tigers, a U.N. spokesman said.
"The wife of a U.N. staff member was injured by an anti-personnel mine while escaping with the staff member and their two children," spokesman Gordon Weiss said.
She was being treated at hospital in Vavuniya, a northern town where the military and most aid agencies base their headquarters for operations in the war zone.
The military's Nanayakkara declined to say what the military's plan was for helping civilians get out of the no-fire zone, a thin 12-km coastal strip bounded by water on two sides.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement that Army snipers were killing LTTE fighters sent to shoot fleeing people.
The United Nations has urged a halt to fighting to let people get out. The government has rejected the call, but says it will guarantee safe passage for civilians.
The LTTE says people are staying of their own free will, despite witness accounts saying the rebels were shooting people trying to flee. It accuses the government of shelling people.
The government denies that and says it has stopped using heavy weapons against Tiger artillery positions located there, and is taking more casualties as a result.
The Tigers are on U.S., EU, Indian and Canadian terrorist lists. They have been fighting a civil war since 1983 to establish a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils.
(Editing by Paul Tait)