COLOMBO, March 16 The United Nations said on Monday Tamil Tiger rebels head forcibly recruited another of its local workers in Sri Lanka's war zone along with three dependents of UN staff, including a 16-year-old girl.

The UN said the forced conscriptions came at the weekend, when nearly 2,000 people fled Sri Lanka's shrinking war zone as troops fought towards 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 UN worker into its ranks. The United Nations and witnesses say hundreds of civilians have been forced to fight or build defences against a military onslaught.

“The UN in Sri Lanka has protested to the LTTE that UN 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 UN statement said.

Sri Lanka's military has encircled the LTTE in 30 sq. km of the Indian Ocean island's northeast, where aid agencies say there are tens of thousands of people trapped in increasingly desperate circumstances. By Monday, soldiers were said to be within a kilometre of a no-fire zone where the government says there are 70,000 people.

The UN has said some 2,800 have been killed in heavy fighting since the end of January. The government rejects those numbers as unsubstantiated. The 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 with the assistance of the ICRC.

SNIPERS DEPLOYED Among those who came out on Sunday was one of 15 United Nations workers forcibly kept in the war zone by the Tigers, a UN spokesman said.

“The wife of a UN staff member was injured by an anti-personnel mine while escaping with the staff member and their two children,” spokesman Gordon Weiss said.

The military spokesman declined to say what the military's plan was for helping civilians get out of the no-fire zone. The Defence Ministry said in a statement that army snipers were killing LTTE fighters sent to shoot fleeing people.

The UN 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. The government says it has stopped using heavy weapons against Tiger artillery positions and is taking more casualties as a result.—Reuters