Hundreds of civilians killed, says Sri Lankan official

A Sri Lankan health official says recent artillery shelling and heavy fighting in the north has killed more than 300 civilians and wounded at least 1 000 others.

Dr Thurairajah Varatharajah revealed the figures in a desperate appeal to the government and aid groups for medicine and blood transfusions for those injured in the fierce fighting between the military and Tamil rebels. Varatharajah is the top health official in the region.

The letter, which was dated Monday January 26, was obtained by the Associated Press on Wednesday.

Concerns over civilian casualties in Sri Lanka’s northern war zone have grown in recent days.

The government on Wednesday pledged not to launch attacks inside a “safe zone” set up as a place of refuge for hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting.

The announcement came after repeated reports of armed forces firing artillery into the zone, which the government set up on the edge of rebel-held territory for ethnic Tamil civilians to seek shelter from the fighting. Scores of civilians were killed in those attacks, a health official said.

The United Nations said dozens of its workers and their relatives came under artillery fire that they believed was from government troops as they sought refuge inside the zone over the weekend.

The military denied firing into the area during its offensive to root the Tamil Tiger rebels from the northeast.

“If they came under fire, then definitely it has been done by the LTTE,” said military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, referring to the rebels by their formal name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Amid the reports of rising casualties, Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee rushed to Sri Lanka on Tuesday night and held emergency meetings with top officials, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

During the late-night meeting, Rajapaksa gave assurances Sri Lankan forces would respect the safe zone to “minimise the effects of conflict on Tamil civilians”, according to nearly identical statements released by India and Sri Lanka on Wednesday.

“We are concerned with the civilians. I requested to the president to take care of these civilians,” Mukherjee told reporters on Wednesday.

The conflict is of special concern to India, home to about 56-million Tamils.

The UN local office sent a private e-mail to its New York headquarters, describing how its staff in the “safe zone” came under fire several times over the weekend. The memo, which was obtained by the Associated Press on Wednesday, said the staff believed the fire was from Sri Lankan troops.

“Fortunately, because of good preparation, all staff and dependents were in hastily built bunkers and only one staff member was injured in the leg,” the memo said. “But all around them was the carnage from casualties from people who may have thought they would be safer being near the UN. Sadly, they were wrong that night.”

Human rights groups and diplomats have expressed concerns for the estimated 250 000 civilians trapped in the territory still under rebel control—an area of about 300 square kilometres.

The government says the number is far lower.

The UN said on Wednesday it would try for a second time to help evacuate hundreds of wounded, including 50 seriously injured children, from the war zone.

“If permission is granted by the LTTE and if a lull in fighting permits, the convoy will cross the frontline at midday on Thursday,” a UN statement said. The injured would be taken to a government hospital, it said.

UN spokesperson Gordon Weiss said his staff has seen “dozens of people killed and wounded” in the safe zone over the past few days, including 10 civilians killed on Monday. He said he did not know who was responsible for firing in the area.

But a local health official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the government, said he believed the government was responsible for the casualties because of the direction from which the fire came.

The Red Cross appealed to both sides on Tuesday to allow the civilians to flee to safety.

“People are being caught in the crossfire, hospitals and ambulances have been hit by shelling and several aid workers have been injured while evacuating the wounded,” said Jacques de Maio, the International Committee of the Red Cross head of operations for South Asia.

Nanayakkara, the military spokesperson, said 3 141 civilians have fled to the government-controlled territory this month.

The shelling comes as the rebels continue to pull their forces and civilians into the last remaining areas of dense jungle still under their control. Government forces captured Mullaittivu, the last town held by the rebels, on Sunday.

The Tamil Tigers have fought since 1983 to create a separate state for minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalisation at the hands of governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70 000 people have been killed in the civil war.—Sapa-AP

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