Doctor says at least 378 people killed in latest assault by Sri Lankan military
Hundreds of civilians are reported to have been killed when the Sri Lankan army launched a concerted assault on an area it had just designated as a safe zone.
A doctor working inside the so-called no-fire zone in the north of the country told the Guardian that at least 378 people had died and 1,212 had been injured in a series of attacks last night, which included shelling from positions held by government forces.
That would make it the bloodiest day since the government launched its all-out campaign to destroy the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the start of the year. The death toll is expected to rise because the figure released by the medical staff only includes bodies brought to the hospital. More bodies are understood to be lying where they fell.
The assault started on the same day that the Sri Lankan government ordered the tens of thousands of civilians still trapped by the fighting to move into an area that is just 2km long and 1.5km wide to enable it to flush out the remaining Tamil rebels.
The shrinking of the safe zone meant some families had to abandon the bunkers they had dug in the sand to find shelter in the new area designated by the government.
According to a UN source, most of the people who were killed were inside the new no-fire zone. The official said many were believed to have died in an air strike at about 5.30am today.
Medical staff working in makeshift facilities inside the zone said shells started falling on Saturday evening.
One doctor said shelling started at 5pm and continued through until 9am. It appeared that the shells were fired from government positions in Mullaitivu.
He said the dead included a man who worked as a nurse at the hospital and seven members of his family, who were killed when a shell hit the bunker where they were sheltering.
“The shells were landing about 300 metres from the hospital,” he said. “All the time, we have casualties coming in. We don’t have time to think.”
He said the dead were being buried in large pits, with 30 or 40 bodies in each pit.
He ended the telephone interview without giving his name, saying he had to deal with an eight-year-old boy had just been brought in requiring immediate surgery on his wounds.
Another doctor, V Shanmugarajah, told the Associated Press that 1,122 people had been wounded in the artillery barrage.
“We are doing the first aid and some surgeries as quickly as we can. We are doing what is possible. The situation is overwhelming; nothing is within our control,” he said.
The pro-LTTE TamilNet website claimed about 2,000 people had died, while the government denied having anything to do with the shelling. It is impossible to verify any of the claims because independent journalists are barred from entering the area where the fighting is taking place.
The difficulties in reporting the situation in the north of the country were highlighted today by the deportation of three members of a Channel 4 news team who were arrested in Trincomalee, south of the no-fire zone, on Saturday.
The government had accused them of fabricating a report in which it was alleged that women were being subjected to sexual abuse in the internment camps set up to hold civilians fleeing the fighting.
Lakshman Hulugalle, the head of the government security information centre, said the journalists had admitted they had “done something wrong” and would not be allowed to return to the country. Nick Paton Walsh, the channel’s Asia correspondent, said the government claims were “complete rubbish”.
The number of people still trapped inside the no-fire zone is in dispute, with the government putting the figure at no more than 20,000, while a UN official said today that as many as 100,000 might still be trapped.
The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly denied using heavy weapons against civilians inside the zone. Last month, it said its forces would use only small arms in their pursuit of the LTTE.
However, reports from medical staff, supported by pictures and videos apparently showing explosions and large-scale casualties, have contradicted those claims. A report from Human Rights Watch yesterday accused the government of hitting hospitals with air and artillery attacks.
The government maintains that the attacks are the work of the LTTE, which it claims is firing on its own people to gain a propaganda advantage. It has accused the doctors of siding with the LTTE.
Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, the military spokesman, today denied there had been any firing in the no-fire zone. He said the military had been able to use its radar to detect firing from LTTE positions into the civilian areas and had intercepted radio conversations between LTTE cadres. “They said they were firing on the people to control them,” he said.
He said nine civilians had been shot dead by the LTTE yesterday as they attempted to escape from the area.
The military reported heavy fighting as its troops continued to advance and claimed that large numbers of LTTE fighters had been killed.