About 250,000 Sri Lankan civilians are trapped and hundreds have been killed in heavy fighting in the country’s north, the International Red Cross has said.
“It’s high time to take decisive action and stop further bloodshed because time is running out,” Jacques de Maio, the group’s head of operations for South Asia, said.
“People are being caught in the crossfire, hospitals and ambulances have been hit by shelling and several aid workers have been injured while evacuating the wounded.”
The Red Cross has urgently appealed to both sides to allow civilians to leave the combat zone.
“When the dust settles, we may see countless victims and a terrible humanitarian situation unless civilians are protected and international humanitarian law is respected in all circumstances,” de Maio said.
Neil Buhne, the UN resident co-ordinator in Sri Lanka, earlier said that reports indicated an estimated 150,000 civilians were still trapped in the jungle battle zone and were in serious danger.
‘Zero civilian casualties’
Sri Lanka’s government insists there have been “z
ero civilian casualties” in its operation to crush the rebels in their last remaining bastion of Mullaittivu district.
But doctors on the ground say this is far from the case.
“Three dead bodies of civilians were brought in on Tuesday and 15 more admitted injured due to the heavy shelling,” T Satyamurthy, the director of Udaiyaarkaddu hospital, was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying.
Most of Mullaittivu district is now under government control following the military’s offensive.
Tony Birtley, Al Jazeera’s correspondent who visited Mullaitivu under the oversight of the army, said the the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are fighting for the creation of an independent Tamil state in northern Sri Lanka, appeared to have fled the town.
“There are no civilians, just stray cows and members of the Sri Lankan army division which took this town.
“Although the Tamil Tigers seem to be retreating, they seem to be putting up some resistance.
“The civilians appear to be retreating with the Tamil Tigers.
“The government is saying they are being forced to – that they are being used as human shields – but we don’t know that for certain.”
In an interview with Birtley, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan defence minister, said that government forces exercised extreme caution during the offensive and only fired on Tamil Tiger rebels.
He dismissed the claims of civilian deaths as LTTE propaganda, insisting that no civilians have died in the recent fighting, and that reports to the contrary should not be believed.
“We don’t use indirect fire unless we are 100 per cent certain that those are LTTE camps or bases … This is all LTTE propaganda,” Rajapaksa said.
The official death toll is unknown as medical officials have said they have been ordered by the health ministry in Colombo not to reveal casualty figures. No journalists are allowed into combat zones on their own.
The aid organisation said on Tuesday that a major humanitarian crisis was unfolding as Sri Lanka’s military continues its offensive against the country’s Tamil Tiger rebels.