/ 13 February 2009

Official: 40 civilians die daily in Sri Lanka war

Artillery shelling and gunbattles between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels are killing about 40 civilians every day and wounding more than 100 others inside Sri Lanka’s war zone, the top health official in the region said on Friday.

Aid groups have estimated more than 200 000 civilians were trapped in a tiny strip of land still controlled by the rebels along the northeastern coast. The military and the rebels deny attacking civilians, but reports from aid workers, health officials and evacuees implicate both sides.

Dr Thurairajah Varatharajah, the government health officer for the Mullaittivu district, said on Friday that artillery shelling was routinely hitting civilian areas in the region and the makeshift hospital he was running out of a school in the coastal town of Putumattalan was overwhelmed by casualties.

The facility was badly understaffed since most of the doctors and nurses either fled the war zone or had stopped coming to work, and the makeshift hospital was running out of some essential antibiotics and anesthesia, he said.

”We are facing in the hospital big problems on all sides. Not enough toilets, bad water supply, food is also a problem,” he told the Associated Press by telephone.

The area around the hospital was shelled on Monday, killing 22 people, he said.

Varatharajah estimated that more than 100 wounded civilians were coming to the hospital every day, most of them with injuries from artillery shells. However, it was impossible to give exact statistics because his administrative staff stopped coming to work amid the violence, he said.

He did not say who he believed was firing the shells.

While relatives have stopped bringing the dead to the hospital — usually burying them where they were killed — many patients told Varatharajah of those who were killed in the attacks that injured them.

”They will tell us, ‘There were five dead bodies in that area, two in that area,”’ he said, explaining how he reached his estimate of 40 killed a day.

A second doctor in the area, who declined to be named for fear of angering the government, estimated that up to 40 people were killed daily.

Varatharajah said the civilians in the area had been suffering heavy casualties for three to four weeks as the military forced the Tamil Tigers into a broad retreat across the north and pushed the rebels to the brink of defeat.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for minority Tamils after decades of marginalisation by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70 000 people have been killed in the fighting. — Sapa-AP