Sri Lanka's defence ministry acknowledged that thousands of Tamil refugees were being accommodated at welfare centres or with friends and relatives in a government-held area.

 

"A total of 42,027 civilians have, in the last few days, arrived from the uncleared [rebel-held] areas of Batticaloa to the government-controlled areas," it said in a statement.

 

The ministry said eight Tigers were killed in three separate clashes in the island's northeast on Saturday and two police commandos were killed on Sunday by a roadside mine in the east.

 

The Batticaloa district in the eastern province had been swamped with more than 76,000 refugees before fresh fighting erupted last week as part of a government push to clear rebel bases, according to international aid agencies operating in the area.

 

Security forces on Thursday began a new push to advance deep into a Tiger stronghold known as the Thoppigala jungle, which stretches from the Batticaloa district to neighbouring Ampara district in the northeast of the island.

 

Nine police commandos from the Special Task Force were killed on Friday in clashes with the LTTE, the Tigers said, adding that they had retrieved six of the bodies and returned four of them to the military on Saturday.

  

More than 4,000 people have been killed amid an upsurge in fighting since December 2005, despite the two sides agreeing to a truce five years ago in their decades-old ethnic war.

 

Appeal for help

 

Meanwhile an ethnic Tamil politician appealed for international

"The Tigers use the civilians as human shields,.. They [refugees] want to get out of there and come to safer places"

Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe, the mMilitary spokesman

intervention on Sunday, claiming that attacks by government troops in northeast Sri Lanka are driving tens of thousands of people from their homes in the area.

 

The International Committee of the Red Cross says that more than 105,000 mainly Tamil refugees have fled their homes in Batticaloa district in search of safe shelter in areas under government control. The residents' flight began in December when the military intensified its attacks against separatist Tamil rebels in the area.

 

"The artillery shells fired by the military are falling inside civilian  settlements and this is forcing the people to flee," said Senadhiraja Jeyanandamoorthy, a member of parliament for Batticaloa district representing the Tamil National Alliance, widely seen as a rebel proxy party.

 

Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe, the mMilitary spokesman, denied that civilian areas were being targeted.

 

"The Tigers use the civilians as human shields," Samarasinghe said. "They [refugees] want to get out of there and come to safer places."

 

The conflict has so far claimed 65,000 lives and displaced more than 1.5 million people.