Sri Lankan rebels accused of gunning down civilians

Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger guerrillas on Tuesday shot dead 17 civilians and wounded nearly 70 others fleeing territory still under rebel control, military spokesperson Udaya Nanayakkara said.

Survivors of the attack who arrived at a military post told how Tiger fighters had fired on a group of 1 000 people trying to cross the frontlines to safety, he said.

“The civilians came to an army position carrying the 17 dead and 69 others who had gunshot injuries,” Nanayakkara said.

According to the government, increasing numbers of non-combatants are attempting to escape from the rebels, who face imminent defeat in their decades-long armed struggle for an independent Tamil homeland.

Among those wounded in the attack were 27 women and 11 children, the military spokesperson said.

It came a day after a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber killed 30 people at a centre for fleeing civilians, in another apparent attempt to stop them from leaving.

But thousands of Tamils are crossing the frontlines in the north of the island each day, the government has said, as it pushes on with a massive offensive to crush the Tamil Tigers after 30 years of unrest.

Sri Lanka accuses the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—as they are formally known—of using the civilians as “human shields”.

Monday’s suicide bombing was condemned by the United Nations and the United States, which backed Colombo’s stance, saying that the attack was an “apparent effort by the LTTE to discourage Tamils from leaving the conflict area”.

“What we are seeing is that more people are coming over to our side,” Nanayakkara said. “The Tigers have also been firing mortars at the routes taken by the civilians, but still they want to escape from the fighting.”

Nanayakkara said 10 civilians were among the 30 people killed in Monday’s attack when a female suicide bomber attacked a makeshift shelter where security forces receive internally displaced people.

The Tamil Tigers have issued no response to the latest violence, and no independent verification from the conflict zone was available as journalists, aid groups and international observers are banned from reporting from the area.

Colombo says the number of civilians trapped by the conflict is now less than 100 000, though UN agencies recently placed it as high as 250 000.

“Up to this morning we have 28 250 people registering with us from the start of this year,” Nanayakkara said, adding that the volume of fleeing civilians had picked up sharply in the past week.

The Defence Ministry said government forces on Tuesday kept up attacks against the remaining Tiger rebels, who suffered “heavy damages” and lost 27 fighters.

Amnesty International condemned Monday’s suicide bombing and said it should not lead to government retaliation.

“The use of such attacks by one party to an armed conflict does not excuse unlawful attacks in response,” Amnesty’s Sri Lanka specialist, Yolanda Foster, said in a statement.

Amnesty said the government’s restrictions made it impossible to know what was happening on the ground.

“In a war with no witnesses, it is the civilians who pay the price for both parties’ disregard for international humanitarian law,” it said.

In a dispute over censorship, the BBC announced on Monday that it would stop providing radio news to Sri Lanka’s national broadcaster.

The BBC said there had been “deliberate interference” with the programmes.

The government has accused individuals from international aid agencies, diplomats and news organisations of being supportive of the Tamil Tigers, whose territory has shrunk to less than 100 square kilometres.—AFP

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