• Agencies say nine died in shelling
of children’s ward
• President claims Tamil Tigers are
close to defeat
Sri Lanka‘s president said yesterday that the army was on the brink of crushing the Tamil Tiger movement – hours after five artillery shells struck the children’s ward of a hospital in rebel-held territory leaving at least nine people dead and 20 injured, according to aid agencies.
Caught in a shrinking war zone are more than 250,000 civilians as the two sides edge towards the final battle after 25 years of civil war. The military claims the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is down to its last 600 fighters.
“The strongholds of terror once believed to be invincible … have fallen in rapid succession, bringing the final elimination of terror from our motherland,” President Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a message to mark the country’s 61st independence day, which will be celebrated tomorrow.
The destruction at the hospital, witnessed by aid workers, highlights how bloody the fighting has become. The first shell hit the hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu, known as PTK, on Sunday, killing two people and injuring five, the Red Cross said. The United Nations said the attacks continued and its 15 staff and 81 family members had taken refuge in bunkers.
The dead included a four-year-old girl, a relative of a UN staff worker.
Gordon Weiss, a spokesman for the UN in Colombo, said the hospital was one of the last functioning health institutions in rebel-held territory, with beds for 500 patients. He could not say why anybody would target it.
“Our office is next to the hospital in PTK,” Weiss said. “The hospital is the main refuge for people in the area. It is overflowing with kids and women. We are very concerned as both sides are using artillery. The last communication that we had from our staff member on the ground was that they were still counting the dead.”
The Red Cross called on both sides to stop shelling, saying in a statement that “wounded and sick people, medical personnel and medical facilities are all protected by international humanitarian law. Under no circumstance may they be directly attacked.”
The country’s defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, told Sky News the hospital should not be there, but denied the army had targeted it. “No hospital should operate in the area,” he said. “That is why [we asked] all the patients to move.”
The death toll has been largely undocumented. The Sri Lankan government has barred journalists from operating in the area, offering only “guided tours” of the nearly 6,000 square miles prised from rebel control by the army.
Last night the Associated Press said it had been given images from the war zone by independent observers who wished to remain anonymous for fear of government retaliation. One from the town of Udakattu, in a government “safe zone”, showed a family apparently killed in their sleep by artillery in January. The mother and father lay dead on mats on the floor, still cradling their two children between them. Other pictures were of wounded children.
Dr Thurairajah Varatharajah, the top government health official in the area, estimated that more than 300 civilians had been killed in recent fighting.
The army has denied killing civilians in its attempt to “eradicate” the rebels. The defence secretary blamed the Tamil Tigers. “The LTTE is trapped,” said Rajapaksa. “They are firing shells everywhere … these have fallen on civilians.
“We were accused of shelling homes and the proof was that the roof was missing. But it was the LTTE who had taken the roofs off the houses. There were no blast marks on the walls.”
Last month a former US deputy attorney general, Bruce Fein, a long-time supporter of Tamil causes, said there was enough evidence to prosecute both the defence secretary and Sri Lanka’s army chief under the United States’s Genocide Accountability Act. Sri Lanka’s defence secretary is a US citizen and the army chief holds an American green card.
Robert Evans, a Labour MEP who chairs the European parliament delegation for relations with south Asia, blamed the Sri Lankan military for attacking its “own people”. He said: “Now we have news that hospitals and ambulances have been hit by shelling, the situation has parallels with the attacks in Gaza.”
The Tamil people who lived in the Vanni – the vast forested area that used to be under LTTE control – have been scattered to either India, camps in central and eastern Sri Lanka or left within the shrinking Tamil Tiger-controlled zone, thought to be barely 100 square miles.
The rebels have fought since 1983 for a separate homeland after decades of marginalisation by governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war.
Additional Audio clip on
“How Sri Lanka is blocking coverage of it military assault on Tamil Tiger Rebels”