LONDON -- At least 100,000 people marched Saturday in London to demand an immediate end to Sri Lanka's military offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels.
Ethnic Tamils and their supporters packed the streets of the capital, brandishing Tamil Tiger flags and urging the U.K. to suspend development aid to Sri Lanka, a former British colony.
Sri Lankan forces have recently made significant gains in their more than two-decade-long war against the rebels, who draw their support from the country's minority Tamil population. But the offensive has sent the civilian death toll soaring and led to international criticism.
"The people here have lost direct family members," said Suren Surendiran, of the British Tamils Forum, which organized the march. "They are here for a reason. They are worried about their next of kin. This is not about a 'Stop the War' march or anything like that," he said, referring to the massive London protest against the Iraq war in 2003. "This is about our own people and our direct family."
The Tigers have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for Tamils, who have faced decades of marginalization by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence. The intensified fighting has pushed rebels and civilians together in the northern part of the country, and the U.N. estimates that dozens are dying every day.
Aid groups accuse the Tamil Tigers -- who are considered a terrorist organization in Europe and the United States -- of using civilians as human shields. But others accuse the Sri Lankan government of shelling a 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers) designated as a "no fire" zone, where about 100,000 civilians are trapped. The Sri Lankan government, which created the "no-fire" zone earlier this year, has denied the charge.
On Saturday, police said 100,000 marched in London. Organizers said the figure was closer to 200,000.
London's River Thames embankment was flooded by Tamils wearing red, black and yellow scarves emblazoned with the rebels' tiger insignia.
In Trafalgar Square, protesters carried a skeletal effigy hanging from a scaffold labeled with the words "Continuous rape and murder."
Elsewhere, children carried a mannequin representing a dead woman on a stretcher. A sign read: "Caused by government force."
In Parliament Square, two protesters -- Sivatharsan Sivakumaraval, 21, and Prarameswaran Subramaniam, 28 -- have been on hunger strike since 6 a.m. Tuesday to draw attention to the Tamils' plight. The men agreed to take liquids for the first time Friday after doctors warned they could suffer from renal failure.