Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Civilian Toll in Sri Lanka Rises, Aid Workers Say

Journalists and relief workers have been barred from the area, but witness reports and amateur video images portray a desperate and brutal battle from which there seems to be no refuge.

By SETH MYDANS, The New York Times, March 6, 2009


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — As many as 200,000 civilians are trapped in a war zone in northern Sri Lanka, sleeping in the open or hiding in trenches as food, water and medical supplies run out and artillery shells explode among them, relief agencies said Thursday.

In what it calls a final assault to end a 25-year rebellion, the military says it has driven ethnic Tamil separatist fighters out of their strongholds and has squeezed them into a 10-square-mile pocket.

Tens of thousands of civilians have taken refuge on a spit of land between the ocean and a brackish lagoon, with a mined bridge preventing escape from one end and heavy fighting blocking the other, relief workers said.

“They describe almost constant shelling, spending hours and hours in bunkers,” said Annemarie Loof, head of mission in Sri Lanka of Doctors Without Borders, who talked to wounded civilians at a medical center outside the conflict area.

Journalists and relief workers have been barred from the area, but witness reports and amateur video images portray a desperate and brutal battle from which there seems to be no refuge.

“They describe how they spend days on end in bunkers — indiscriminate shelling, people injured and dying around them, no time or space to bury the dead,” Ms. Loof said. “The wounds we see are mostly conflict related: gunshot wounds and shrapnel wounds.”

The shelling killed a Sri Lankan relief worker with the International Committee of the Red Cross as he was helping people look for shelter, said a spokeswoman for the organization.

The government rejects reports of shelling and puts the number of trapped civilians at 70,000. The numbers are impossible to verify, but independent estimates range from 150,000 to 200,000.

The Sri Lankan Army commander, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, told his officers that military operations “should be carried out taking all possible safety precautions with utmost precision” to avoid harming growing throngs of civilian refugees, the Defense Ministry Web site reported Thursday.

The rebels, known as the L.T.T.E., for Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have been fighting for an independent homeland in northern Sri Lanka after decades of marginalization by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority.

After many failed assaults over the years, the government now says it is close to eliminating the rebels as a regular force, although analysts say guerrilla war and terrorist attacks are likely to continue.

More than 70,000 people have been killed since the war began in 1983, and tens of thousands have been wounded or displaced in a conflict that has been characterized by a disregard for the welfare of civilians.

Human Rights Watch said in a recent report, “The Sri Lankan armed forces and the L.T.T.E. appear to be engaged in a perverse competition to demonstrate the greatest disregard for the civilian population.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross has evacuated 2,400 people in eight ferry operations, said a spokeswoman, Sarasi Wijueatne.

The head of the organization’s operations for South Asia, Jacques de Maio, said, “When we reach the beach with the ferry there are exchanges of fire, there are thousands of people on this beach, they are stranded on basically sand and salty water,” he said.

By boat or on foot, about 35,000 people have managed to flee south to Vavuniya, where Doctors Without Borders has a unit.

“They are tired, hungry and frightened, and have no information about their family members who did not manage to escape the conflict zone,” the group said in a report. “Many are injured, some with infected wounds that are weeks old.”


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