COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — A mother and father lay on the floor, their two young children cradled between them. Floral pillows and other bedding were strewn about: They were apparently sleeping when an artillery shell hit their makeshift shelter in northern Sri Lanka, instantly killing them all.
This photo, taken Jan. 23, along with other pictures and video footage taken last week were given to The Associated Press by independent observers. They offer a rare glimpse of the growing toll the civil war has taken on the estimated 250,000 civilians trapped in the all-but-sealed conflict zone.
The images show that despite repeated government denials, civilians are being killed and maimed in the fighting.
Some of the victims were attacked inside a government-declared “safe zone” in rebel-held territory and the wounded were brought to the nearby Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital, which itself has come under attack.
The hospital, overflowing with wounded civilians, was shelled Monday for the fourth time in two days, killing two patients, said Kandasamy Tharmakulasingham, a government health official. A total of 11 people have been killed since the first attack on the hospital Sunday afternoon, he said.
One of the last working medical institutions in the region, the hospital lies outside the “safe zone” the government established Jan. 21 inside rebel territory as a refuge for civilians. The government pledged not to attack the safe area during its offensive against the rebels, but it has come under repeated artillery attack, according to local health officials and human rights groups.
Government troops have brought the Tamil Tiger rebels to the brink of defeat in recent months, forcing them out of much of the de facto state they once controlled in the north, capturing their administrative capital and shattering their dream of establishing a separate homeland for minority Tamils. The offensive has also raised growing concerns about the fate of civilians in the war zone.
Journalists and most aid groups have been barred from the area of the fighting, but independent observers shot video footage and photographs over the past week and provided them to The Associated Press. The observers provided the images on condition they not be identified because they feared government reprisal.
The photograph of the slain family was taken in the early morning of Jan. 23 in the village of Udayarkattu inside the “safe zone,” according to the observer who took the picture. It showed the bloodied bodies of a woman, two young children and a man lying among brightly colored floral pillows, a green mat, striped sheets and other bedding. A bicycle, stacked blankets and other household items could be seen in the background.
An artillery shell struck between two makeshift shelters where people displaced by the fighting were staying and the family of four was killed instantly, the observer said. A second photo showed the body of a woman wearing a red-and-white checked dress lying face down under debris in another shelter nearby.
The video footage, taken last week, showed Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital packed with dozens of severely wounded people, including many young children. Many of the wounded were lying on mats underneath beds because of overcrowding.
The footage showed young boys and girls with amputated legs and arms, and an elderly woman missing her right leg writhing on a mat on the floor. A toddler, his head bandaged and left eye swollen closed, lay nearby, his gauze-covered hands useless as flies buzzed around his face.
“We were caught in shelling after I unloaded our goods. Both my sisters were killed,” a teenage boy with no arms sobbed in despair in the footage.
Nearby, a middle-aged man lay on a bed with one leg amputated above the knee and the other amputated below it. “I was sleeping with my family when the shells fell,” he said, gesturing helplessly. “My wife and two children, aged 7 and 10, were blown to pieces and I screamed.”
Another man, his right arm missing below the elbow and his left hand bandage, recalled: “I got caught in a shell attack near my house. That’s all I remember. When I woke up, my hand was cut off.”
The footage showed young children, including a baby who appeared to be less than 1-year-old with both legs heavily bandaged.
Asked about the video and photographs, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara asserted: “No civilians have been killed.”
“There may be civilians injured, but not due to shelling. They may be injured because they have been employed on the construction of (rebel) defenses. Civilians maybe have been injured due to crossfire,” he said.
Dr. Thurairajah Varatharajah, the top health official in the war zone, estimated last week that more than 300 civilians had been killed in the recent fighting, something the government has denied. Varatharajah has not updated his estimate.
The government has accused the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, of holding the civilians against their will as human shields, a charge the rebels deny.
A government spokesman insisted the civilians move en masse to the “safe zone” immediately. “The government cannot be responsible for the safety and security of civilians still living among LTTE terrorists,” said spokesman Lakshman Hulugalle.
He did not say how the civilians could move if they were being held against their will.
The United Nations said the government could not absolve itself of responsibility for the safety of the civilian population. “You can’t cherry pick from the laws of war. The warring parties remain responsible for civilians at all times,” U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa said Monday the military was on the verge of ending Asia’s longest-running civil war.
“The strongholds of terror once believed to be invincible … have fallen in rapid succession, bringing the final elimination of terror from our motherland and the dawn of true freedom to all our people well within our reach,” he said in a message to mark Independence Day, which falls on Wednesday.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for ethnic minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war.