Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces battling in Sri Lanka’s north-east are using thousands of trapped civilians as little more than ”cannon fodder,” campaign group Human Rights Watch charged.
It said new satellite imagery and witness accounts contradicted government claims that it was no longer using heavy weapons, while the rebels were using civilians as human shields and shooting those who tried to flee.
Artillery strikes on the small strip of coastline still held by the Tigers have caused major casualties among tens of thousands of civilians, with the United Nations describing shelling at the weekend as a ”bloodbath” that left more than 100 children dead.
”Recent satellite photos and witness accounts show the brutal shelling of civilians in the conflict area goes on,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at the US-based Human Rights Watch.
He added: ”Neither the Sri Lankan army nor the Tamil Tigers appear to have any reluctance in using civilians as cannon fodder.”
The Colombo government estimates up to 20 000 civilians are being held in the pocket where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels are holed up, although the United Nations has said as many as 50 000 may be trapped.
Human Rights Watch said witnesses described sheltering in shallow bunkers from artillery attacks and being blocked from escaping.
It cited a 35-year-old woman saying eight to 10 shells hit an area packed with civilians on May 9. A cousin of hers was killed while ”many other people were injured as well … I could hear their screams.”
Another civilian described a shell attack he believed came from government positions and may have been targeting rebels a short distance away, but hit a tented area inhabited by displaced civilians.
He said that when he and hundreds of other civilians had tried to flee in early April, LTTE fighters opened fire.
”I saw them shoot at least 15 people,” he said. ”They just opened fire on the first row of people. I don’t know whether they lived or died, however.
”We fell to the ground as soon as the firing started. When it stopped, we ran back as quickly as we could. There were children among the people who got shot as well.”
Human Rights Watch said doctors reported a makeshift hospital was shelled on Tuesday when nearly 1 000 patients — some of them wounded in previous attacks — were seeking treatment.
The rebels accuse government forces of that artillery and mortar attack and say at least 47 civilians were killed — charges fiercely denied by the army, which insists it is not using heavy weapons nor targeting non-combatants.
None of the claims can be independently verified as independent reporters, diplomats and most aid agencies have been barred from going anywhere near the conflict zone.
Human Rights Watch urged Sri Lanka’s key donors, notably the United States, European Union, China, India and Japan, to demand the Colombo government end the use of heavy weapons.
It said government forces and rebels must allow safe passage for civilians to flee, and called on the UN Security Council to meet formally to assess the humanitarian situation. – AFP