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Rights group appeals for release of Sri Lankan civilians

Human Rights Watch called on Thursday on the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger rebels to allow tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the northern war zone to flee to safety amid intense fighting and shortages of aid.

The appeal came as a Red Cross staff member reportedly helping evacuate the wounded from the area was killed in the fighting.

International aid groups have expressed growing concerns for the safety of the civilians in recent weeks as government forces pushed the rebels out of much of their de facto state in the north and cornered them in a tiny strip of land along the northeast coast.

Health officials and witnesses have accused the government of killing scores of civilians in artillery attacks, and the rebels of holding the civilians hostage for use as human shields against the military offensive. Both sides deny the accusations.

Aid groups estimate 200 000 civilians might be trapped along with the rebels. The government says the number is closer to 70 000.

Human Rights Watch said the civilians in the area were at grave risk from the fighting and dwindling supplies of aid, and said a ”humanitarian disaster” was unfolding in the country.

”A humanitarian evacuation of civilians is desperately needed right now,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for the New York-based rights group.

The group, which estimated 2 000 civilians were killed in recent fighting, called on the government and the rebels to work together to let the civilians flee and to allow aid into the area.

The pro-rebel Web site TamilNet said military shelling on Wednesday killed at least 70 civilians — 21 of them children. The attacks hit villages inside and outside a government-declared safe zone in rebel territory that the military promised not to attack.

TamilNet said a Red Cross worker, who was returning from assisting in a sea evacuation of wounded civilians, was among those killed.

Sarasi Wijeratne, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), confirmed that a local staff member was killed.

”One of our male workers was killed on Wednesday afternoon by shrapnel,” Wijeratne said.

She identified the victim as Vadivel Vijayakumar, an ethnic Tamil working for the relief agency.

She said it was not clear who was responsible for the attack, but that he was killed after helping injured civilians board an ICRC ferry that was evacuating the wounded.

”Despite this unfortunate incident, the ICRC will remain in the conflict area and continue with our humanitarian work,” Wijeratne added.

Since February, the ICRC has helped evacuate nearly 2 800 patients and their relatives by sea out of the island’s north-east.

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara denied the government was responsible for the attacks.

”We don’t even use shells now. It’s all house-to-house fighting, street-to-street,” he said. ”Hardly any artillery is being used. It’s all false propaganda.”

Verification of the fighting is not possible because independent journalists are barred from the war zone.

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for ethnic Tamils after decades of marginalisation by governments controlled by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority. More than 70 000 people have been killed in the fighting. — Sapa-AP, AFP

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