/ 8 November 2006

Many killed in Sri Lanka refugee-camp bombing

At least 65 civilians were killed and about 300 injured on Wednesday when government forces shelled a refugee camp in eastern Sri Lanka, Tamil rebels and medical sources said.

The bodies of the victims were brought to the Vakarai hospital inside the rebel-held part of Batticaloa following heavy artillery duels, while the wounded were taken to three hospitals in the district, a medical source said.

A spokesperson for the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said the final toll could rise to 100.

The victims were ethnic Tamils who had been displaced by the recent upsurge in shelling in the region.

Sri Lanka’s Defence Ministry did not comment on Tiger claims that the military had shelled a refugee centre but suggested that there may have been civilian losses.

”It was what the Tigers wanted — to cause damages to the innocent Tamil civilians by provoking the army to retaliate for the Tigers’ sporadic and indiscriminate shelling,” the ministry said in a statement.

It accused the Tigers of using civilians as human shields to attack government forces in the restive region where both have blamed the other for starting the latest round of artillery duels.

”The Tigers had been planning this situation since the beginning of this month by detaining the innocent civilians in those areas by force to be used as a human shield when the time arises,” the Defence Ministry statement said.

The Tigers said the attack was timed when the world attention was on Iraq and elections in the United States.

”Is it possible that the Sri Lankan military’s intention was to teach the Tamils the lesson that they, the military, can kill refugees in such numbers, and no one can stop them?” the Tigers asked.

”The timing of the attack, when the world attention is focused on Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the US elections, must have also been selected to escape any international scrutiny of their methods,” the Tigers said in a statement.

Military spokesperson Prasad Samarasinghe said he was not aware of civilian casualties but confirmed ”heavy artillery and mortar bomb exchanges” in Batticaloa district, about 300km east of Colombo by road.

The latest bloodshed came as security forces and Tamil Tiger rebels accused each other of trying to spark full-scale war in a country where a Norwegian-arranged ceasefire is barely holding.

Nearly 3 300 people have been killed in fighting in the past year despite a 2002 truce in Sri Lanka’s separatist conflict.

On Tuesday, the LTTE and the military both claimed several civilians and combatants had been killed or injured since Sunday in artillery duels in the east and north of the island.

Sri Lanka’s key foreign aid donors — the US, European Union, Japan and Norway — have called on both the government and the Tigers to refrain from military action after peace talks between the combatants collapsed in Geneva last month.

The collapse left tens of thousands of residents of the northern peninsula of Jaffna cut off from food and other essentials as government troops have blocked the main highway to the area because rebels also use it to transport supplies.

The government on Wednesday offered to open an alternate ferry route, but the guerrillas said that access road was badly damaged due to recent artillery and mortar bomb attacks.

The LTTE’s peace secretariat chief, S Puleedevan, said three mortar bombs exploded even as truce monitors inspected the alternate route on Wednesday. — Sapa-AFP