300 civilians wounded in Sri Lanka battle

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At least 300 civilians were wounded and scores feared killed by Sri Lankan army artillery shells fired into a designated "safe zone" for ethnic Tamils trapped by fighting between the military and Tamil rebels, a health official alleged today.

The shelling comes as the rebels continue to fall back, pulling their forces and civilians into the last remaining areas of dense jungle still under their control and leaving behind ghost towns.

TamilNet, a pro-rebel Web site, said the shelling killed more than 300 civilians yesterday. The military denied firing into the zone.

The health official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the government, said hundreds of wounded had reached nearby hospitals, but it remained difficult to obtain a full account of the casualty toll in the 13.5-square-mile (35-square-kilometer) safe zone near Mullaittivu.

Today journalists were allowed rare access to Mullaittivu, the last town held by the rebels before it fell to the government advance last week. The media has been largely barred from the front lines and it was impossible to enter the "safe zone" to verify the casualty reports.

Only the cries of gulls and the distant thunder of artillery could be heard in this seaside town that was emptied by the departing rebels.

As army forces closed in, outflanking the Tamil Tiger fortifications, the rebels apparently sent the residents into jungle areas under their control and methodically stripped the town of anything useful.

The only signs of life today were a handful of soldiers patrolling the streets and the occasional abandoned cow or stray dog.

In what appeared to be rebel headquarters in the town, only an assortment of calendars showing the rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran remained on the walls. All the furniture and even the light bulbs had been removed.

"This is ruined," said Col. Aruna Ariyasinghe , the local army commander.

The rebels have taken residents with them as they retreat across northern Sri Lanka.

Human rights groups and diplomats have expressed concerns about the safety of an estimated 150,000 to 400,000 civilians in the territory still under rebel control — an area of about 115 square miles (300 square kilometers). The government says the number is far lower.

The government unilaterally declared a "safe zone" last week in a small section of rebel-held territory and called on civilians to move into that area, where they would be protected. But there have been several reports of artillery fire in that area, including Monday's shelling.

The health official said victims of the shelling were being brought to Puthukudiyiruppu hospital, some 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of Mullaittivu.

At least 300 wounded have arrived at the hospital, he said, adding that relatives told him they had already buried the dead or abandoned the bodies by roadsides as they fled attacks.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara denied that soldiers fired shells into the safe zone, and said they had not targeted civilians during any of the fighting in northern Sri Lanka. He said alleged civilian casualties were rebels dressed in civilian clothing or civilians pressed into service by the insurgents to build fortifications.

But the health official said he believed the government was responsible for the causalities because of the direction from which the fire came.

The UN resident coordinator Neil Buhne told The Associated Press yesterday that there was a "high intensity of fighting" in that region, including in the safe zone.

"There have been many civilians killed over the last two days," he said. "It's really a crisis now."

The Tamil Tigers have fought since 1983 to create a separate state for minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war.