/ 11 April 2009

At least 128 reported dead in Sri Lanka’s ‘no-fire zone’

At least 128 civilians have died and more than 700 have been injured in three days of shelling in the last remaining pocket of Tamil Tiger resistance in Sri Lanka, according to reports from inside the ”no-fire zone”.

The deaths came as the Sri Lankan military announced that operations to free tens of thousands of trapped civilians had entered their final stage.

Reports of the latest casualties were compiled by Human Rights Watch, which said it had spoken to doctors working inside the coastal strip covering 2 000 hectares where the UN estimates about 100 000 civilians are trapped.

The group said civilian casualties were ”skyrocketing” and accused both sides in the conflict of violating international law. It claimed Sri Lankan government forces had fired into the no-fire zone and accused the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of holding civilians hostage there. It is not possible to verify the claims because independent access to the area is prohibited.

Calling on the United Nations Security Council to intervene, Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: ”Sri Lanka’s so-called ‘no-fire zone’ is now one of the most dangerous places in the world. The [UN] Security Council has quibbled over protocol when it should be acting to bring an end to this ghastly loss of life.”

The Sri Lankan military has repeatedly denied accusations that it has fired into the zone, accusing the LTTE of carrying out the attacks for propaganda purposes.

According to Human Rights Watch, the makeshift hospital inside the zone at Putumattalan received 133 wounded civilians and 20 dead bodies on 7 April; 296 wounded and 46 bodies on 8 April, and 300 wounded and 62 bodies on 9 April.

The group quoted a 35-year-old witness to an attack on 8 April, saying that hundreds of people were waiting for food to be distributed when shells started falling.

”It was early in the morning,” the witness said. ”I heard the first shell, and hit the ground. Then several more landed nearby, after three or four minutes. I survived by miracle, but my 45-year-old uncle died on the spot – he lost both legs.

”Now I am staying in the hospital with my wife and child, because we have nowhere else to go and the hospital may be the safest place. But there is also no place to stay here. There are so many injured people, and the new injured are being brought here all the time as we speak.”

A doctor quoted by the group claimed to have found 120mm rounds at the site of an attack on 8 April. He said that the rounds appeared to have come from Sri Lankan army positions.

The Sri Lankan Health Minister, Nimal Siripala de Silva, said on Friday that doctors inside the zone were being pressured by the LTTE to exaggerate civilian casualties and denied that the government was responsible for the deaths and injuries.

”The military is not attacking this particular zone with artillery or with any other weapons. It is very clear that the government and the military do not want any civilian casualties,” he said.

”Because we have almost won the war against terrorism in Sri Lanka, we don’t want that to be spoiled at the last moment.” – guardian.co.uk