'75 die' as Sri Lanka forces are accused of shelling hospital

Government noose tightens around rebel Tamil Tiger enclave amid growing fears for trapped civilians
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The Independent Online

Fears were growing last night for scores of Sri Lankan civilians after it was reported that more than 75 people had been killed in the last two days by a government bombardment of a makeshift hospital in the country's war zone.

Government health officials working in the clinic, located in the tiny patch of land still held by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebel forces, have claimed that patients, visitors and their relatives were among the dead. They said around another 100 civilians were injured. The military has denied the reports and the government has said the accounts of the health officials cannot be trusted. Photographs, apparently taken by the health officials, show the intensive care unit of the hospital, set up in a school classroom, with two bodies lying on the floor.

Speaking last night from the clinic in the town of Mulliavaikal, one of the officials, Dr T Varatharajah, told The Independent on Sunday: "There were two attacks today. Sixty-four people were killed and 87 injured. Yesterday there was one attack. Nine people were killed and 15 injured." The doctor said the clinic was located less than a mile from the front line and that he had no doubt the shelling had come from government troops. He added: "There are other civilians outside of the hospital who were also killed." He was unable to provide the numbers.

The government has strongly denied shelling the hospital and instead suggested the deaths may have been caused by an LTTE suicide bomber. Previously the Health Minister and other senior officials have said the claims of the doctors cannot be trusted because they are in an area controlled by the rebels. Military spokesman Brig Udaya Nanayakkara, said: "This report is not true. There is no necessity to put shells into that area. There has been no heavy weaponry used and no aerial intervention. We demarcated this area for the safety of civilians. That is the main reason we resist using heavy weapons."

With journalists and almost all aid workers prevented from reaching the war zone in Sri Lanka's north-east, the claims are impossible to verify independently. However, an international source in Colombo with knowledge of the war zone, said: "We think this report is credible. We think the number of dead being reported is correct." The UN has estimated that 6,500 civilians have been killed since January.

The makeshift hospital is the only clinic available to an estimated 50,000 civilians still trapped in the war zone along with the remnants of the LTTE and its leader, Vellupillai Prabakharan. Aid groups and civilians who have escaped from the war zone – around 100,000 have so far managed to flee after government forces broke through an earth wall – said the LTTE had tried to prevent people from leaving and has even shot civilians who sought to escape. Those who do escape are being interned in a series of refugee camps, ringed with razor wire.

This latest report comes just days after leaked UN satellite images appeared to show shell craters inside the so-called "no-fire zone". A senior government official, Palitha Kohona, initially said the shells had been fired several weeks ago at LTTE artillery positions. Since then, however, the government has denied shelling the area. A statement issued by the Defence Ministry said: "Conclusions drawn from the interpretations of these images have no scientific validity."

The government has rejected calls from the international community for a ceasefire to allow the evacuation of civilians. After a brutal civil war lasting 30 years, the authorities are determined to crush the separatist rebels who have been fighting for a Tamil homeland in the north of the country.

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