/ 12 May 2009

Tigers: Hospital shelling kills dozens in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels accused government forces of killing at least 47 civilians on Tuesday in an artillery and mortar attack on a hospital, a charge fiercely denied by the island’s military.

A spokesperson for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), whose fighters are battling to defend a tiny strip of coastal jungle, said a makeshift hospital packed with survivors of weekend attacks was hit by government forces.

”Heavy artillery and mortar attacks this morning hit the hospital and 45 people were killed there,” rebel spokesperson S Puleedevan said by telephone. ”Most of them were those injured in Sunday’s attacks.”

The pro-rebel Tamilnet website said the number killed had since risen to 47, and that 55 patients were wounded. The LTTE says more than 2 000 civilians were killed in similar alleged Sri Lankan army attacks on Sunday.

The government’s main moderate Tamil political ally also confirmed the civilian losses, but stopped short of apportioning blame and asked the government to intervene and urgently help the

”Please intervene and stop firing shells targeting terrified civilians,” the leader of the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), V Anandasangari, said in a letter to President Mahinda Rajapakse.

Anandasangari asked the government to send a medical team to Mullivaikal where more than 1 000 casualties of other incidents
were also awaiting treatment for two days.

”Even if this is an act of the LTTE the government has a duty to save the civilians,’ he added.

The remarks came amid mounting international outrage over large-scale civilian deaths, with the European Union calling for United Nations Security Council action and the United States telling Sri Lanka to stop using heavy weapons.

Sri Lanka’s Defence Ministry, however, blamed any civilian deaths on the rebels — who it accused of firing heavy weapons from inside an area declared to be a ”civilian safety zone”.

The military insists it is not using heavy guns, and says the Tigers are keeping people hostage to use them as human shields and shooting those who try to escape.

The rival claims cannot be independently verified as independent journalists, diplomats and most aid agencies are barred from going anywhere near the conflict zone in the far northeast of the island.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) did confirm there was firing in the area, and that it had been unable to evacuate the wounded from the makeshift Mullivaikal hospital. It did not comment on who was responsible.

It said it could not operate a mercy mission to ferry out the wounded from the small sliver of coastal land still in the hands of the Tamil Tigers on Tuesday because of continuing fighting.

”The plight of the people remaining in the combat area is desperate,” said Paul Castella, the head of the ICRC delegation in Sri Lanka. ”We need unimpeded access to them in order to save lives.”

Sri Lanka says the Tigers, who have been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since the 1970s, now control only four square kilometres of coastal jungle and are on the brink of total defeat.

The Defence Ministry said its troops had captured more ground in the latest fighting and had recovered 35 rebel bodies. The military
spokesperson said the LTTE’s leader, 54-year-old Velupillai Prabhakaran, was now trapped.

”According to our information, the LTTE leadership, along with their second-rung, is remaining in the small area,” Nanayakkara said.

On Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate halt to the war — saying he was ”appalled at the killing of hundreds of civilians in Sri Lanka over the weekend”.

The UN spokesperson in Colombo has described the weekend’s events as a ”bloodbath”.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also said in a joint news conference with his counterparts from France and Austria that ”the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka is something the Security
Council should address”.

The US said it was ”deeply concerned” over ”an
unacceptably high level of civilian casualties,” and urged the Tamil Tigers to surrender and the government to abide by a promise not to use heavy weapons.

Despite the outrage, the Sri Lanka issue is not on the agenda of the 15-member council as some powerful members, notably China and Russia, are opposed to taking action. — Sapa-AFP