Sri Lanka Scales Back Heavy-Weapon Attacks on Rebels

The Sri Lankan government has ended the use of heavy weapons and combat aircraft in what it says is an effort to protect tens of thousands of civilians caught between warring sides in Asia's longest-running civil war.

The United Nations estimates that about 50,000 civilians are still trapped in a small stretch of land in rebel-held territory on the northeast coast of this once-prosperous island nation.

"Our security forces will confine their attempts to rescuing civilians who are held hostage and give foremost priority to saving civilians," said a statement from the office of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The Sri Lankan government rejected a call by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for an immediate cease-fire Sunday.

The 25-year civil war began with the LTTE's desire for a separate homeland for the ethnic minority Hindu Tamils who they believe are treated like second-class citizens in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist Sinhalese government strongly denies such a claim.

The government ended a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire agreement about a year ago before beginning the most recent fighting. Before the war began, Sri Lanka had one of the strongest economies in South Asia. But the war changed that. More than 25 percent of its population now lives below the poverty line.

Shortly after today's government announcement, the rebels claimed the government had not kept its word. TamilNet, a Web site created for the ethnic minority Tamils, reported that LTTE's director of peace secretariat, S. Puleedevan, said Sri Lankan Air Force bombers were still attacking civilians.

A U.N. report states that nearly 6,500 noncombatants have already been killed in the recent offensive of the past three months.

The Sri Lankan government denies that its offensive had anything to do with these deaths and places the blame on the rebels.

"We are not operating in that area," M. R. Hassen, deputy director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said. "But the LTTE is firing to the government troops and they are using long-range mortars and ammunition and they also use machine guns to attack civilians fleeing from that area."

Sri Lankans Are Desperate for Supplies

The International Committee of the Red Cross said that the trapped civilians are in desperate need of food, water and medical care. Many of the wounded have shrapnel embedded in their bodies and have had limbs amputated, a Red Cross spokesperson told ABC News.

The United Nations' humanitarian chief, John Holmes, who toured Vavuniya, an area south of the war zone where more than 100,000 displaced civilians flood the refugee camps, said he is not hopeful that there will be an end to the fighting.

"I have to say, I don't see much prospect of that at the moment," Holmes said, according to The Associated Press.