COLOMBO - Sri Lanka on Monday ordered troops to stop using heavy weapons against the Tamil Tiger rebels, and instead focus on protecting and rescuing tens of thousands of people still trapped in the last rebel pocket.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) immediately accused the government of disregarding its own commitment by launching two air raids on the tiny rebel-held area.
Sri Lanka's announcement came a day after it dismissed an attempt to declare a truce by the rebels, now cornered in less than 10 square km (4 sq mile) of coastline by 50,000 troops fighting to finish Asia's longest modern war.
Combat operations have reached their conclusion, a statement from President Mahinda Rajapaksa's office said. Soldiers would confine their attempts to rescuing civilians who are held hostage and give foremost priority to saving civilians.
Troops have been ordered not to use heavy-caliber guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons, the statement said.
Nonetheless, troops kept moving forward, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
The rescue operation is continuing today, he said. Special forces, commandos and snipers have been deployed, he said.
Analysts said the announcement appeared designed to mollify
diplomatic pressure for a ceasefire, which Sri Lanka has ruled out given the LTTE's history of using breaks in the fighting to rearm and its rejection of two government truce offers this year.
The conventional war's impending end will leave Sri Lanka facing the challenges of healing years of division and boosting an economy beset by a declining currency, falling exports of tea and garments and low foreign exchange reserves.
It is seeking a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund loan and business executives are optimistic the war's end will bring foreign investment back, but the LTTE has warned it will stage guerrilla attacks on economic targets as it has done before.
The rebels have vowed no surrender in their fight for a separate state for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, a struggle that began in the early 1970s and erupted into civil war in 1983.
For weeks before Monday's move, the military had said it was only using small arms in order to protect civilians in what it has dubbed the largest hostage rescue operation in the world.
I don't see any substantial change. This would probably be in deference to international opinion, said Col. R. Hariharan, who was head of military intelligence for the Indian army during its 1987-1990 peacekeeping mission in Sri Lanka.
What is there to stop anyway? That stage is gone. I don't think anybody will take it very seriously, he said.
LTTE peace secretariat chief S. Puleedevan accused Sri Lanka of attempting to deceive the international community, including the people of Tamil Nadu with the announcement, pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com reported.
Puleedevan said two jets bombed the rebel area on Monday, TamilNet reported.
Air force spokesman Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara said there had been no combat sorties: That stopped a long time ago.
Access to the war zone is restricted for most outsiders, and few inside have full independence, so independent verification of battlefield accounts is difficult.
The Sri Lankan war has become an election issue in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home to 60 million Tamils. The state's chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, abruptly stopped a decision to fast in protest at the war after Rajapaksa's announcement.
Last-minute diplomatic efforts have borne little fruit, with the LTTE refusing to release tens of thousands of non-combatants it holds inside the war zone, and the government saying the Tigers must surrender or be destroyed.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, due in Sri Lanka on Wednesday with his French and Swedish counterparts to press for a truce, said the fighting had created a crisis.
It's very, very important that we follow through on the government's welcome announcement ... of a cease to combat operations, he told reporters in Luxembourg.
The military denies accusations from the LTTE, United Nations and others that it was shelling the area, which until last week had been an army-declared no-fire zone.
An internal U.N. tally of casualties says nearly 6,500 people have been killed in fighting since late January.
The LTTE denies numerous witness reports it has been keeping civilians by force. More than 113,000 have fled since troops blew up an earth barricade a week ago.
The United Nations' top aid official, John Holmes, flew into northern Sri Lanka on Monday to assess the state of the nearly 200,000 people who have fled this year.
The United Nations and other aid groups say the sudden exodus threatens to overwhelm the existing facilities to care for those displaced, particularly the wounded.