/ 11 May 2009

UN decries Sri Lanka ‘bloodbath’

The United Nations condemned a ”bloodbath” in Sri Lanka’s northern war zone on Monday after two days of shelling that a government doctor said killed as many as 1 000 ethnic Tamil civilians — including 106 children.

Volunteers dug mass graves in the marshland, putting 50 to 60 bodies in each pit, according to Dr V Shanmugarajah, who works at a makeshift hospital in the war zone. He said one nurse was killed along with his family in a trench that was then filled with soil and turned into their grave.

Shanmugarajah said the hospital was so short-staffed that many of those wounded in the first barrage late Saturday had still not been treated Monday morning. ”The hospital death rate is increasing, but we are helpless,” he said.

A rebel-linked website blamed the attacks on the government, while the government denied firing any artillery into the area.

”The UN has consistently warned against the bloodbath scenario as we’ve watched the steady increase in civilian deaths over the last few months,” UN spokesperson Gordon Weiss said on Monday. ”The large-scale killing of civilians over the weekend, including the deaths of more than 100 children, shows that that bloodbath has become a reality.”

The first barrage struck the tiny sliver of northeast coast still held by the rebels on Saturday evening and lasted through the night, health officials said.

On Sunday evening, a new round of shelling — less intense than the first — pounded a newly demarcated ”safe zone” where the government had urged civilians to gather, said Shanmugarajah.

A total of 393 people were either brought to the hospital for burial or died at the facility on Sunday, while another 37 bodies were brought in on Monday morning, he said. The dead included 106 children, he said. More than 1 300 wounded civilians came to the hospital as well.

However, the death toll was likely far higher, he said. Many of the dead were buried in the bunkers where they had taken refuge and then were killed, and many of the wounded never made it to the hospital for treatment.

”There were many who died without medical attention,” Shanmugarajah said. ”Seeing the number of wounded and from what the people tell me, I estimate the death toll to be about 1 000.”

Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government bars journalists and aid workers from the war zone. The attacks marked the bloodiest assault on ethnic Tamil civilians since the civil war flared again more than three years ago.

UN figures compiled last month showed that nearly 6 500 civilians had been killed in three months of fighting this year as the government drove the rebels out of their strongholds in the north and vowed to end the war.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights groups called on Japan, the largest international donor to Sri Lanka, to press the UN Security Council to urgently address the civil war here.

”Formal meetings of the Security Council must be held urgently so that the council can take the necessary measures to address the humanitarian and human rights crisis,” the groups said in a letter to Japan’s prime minister.

The rebel-linked TamilNet Web site blamed the attack on Sri Lankan forces.

Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe denied the government was responsible for any artillery attacks and claimed health officials in the area were under pressure to lie from the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

”We have consciously avoided firing into the areas where civilians are forcibly held by the LTTE,” he said.

Rights groups have accused the government of bombing and shelling the war zone despite pledges to stop using heavy weapons.

They also accuse the rebels of holding the civilians as human shields and shooting some who tried to flee.

About 50 000 civilians are crowded into a 4km long strip of coast along with the separatists, who have been fighting for 25 years for a homeland for minority Tamils.

The government has brushed off international calls for a humanitarian truce, saying any pause in the fighting would give the rebels time to regroup. — Sapa-AP