One dead as Sri Lankan rebels stage daring air raid on capital

Group calls for an end to the ‘slaughter of civilians’
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The Independent Online

Sri Lankan rebels launched an audacious air raid on the island’s capital last night as they lashed out despite a punishing military offensive that has left them under siege in a corner of separatist-held territory in the north.

Two light planes attacked Colombo and according to a defence spokesman dropped a bomb on the tax revenue office, killing one person and injuring 40. But another report said that the plane crashed on to the building, setting it on fire, after being shot down by anti-aircraft guns.

The raid was an embarrassment for the government, which claims to be on the verge of finishing off the rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam once and for all.

It was the first air raid on Colombo since the rebels bombed a power station on the outskirts of the city last October.

Earlier, Human Rights Watch called for an end to the “slaughter of civilians” by both sides in the civil war after detailing how the deaths of civilians have soared in recent months as government forces have sought to end the decades-long conflict.

Human Rights Watch said civilian casualties have risen as government troops indiscriminately shell the northern war zone, and the LTTE fire on families trying to flee the fighting. An estimated 2,000 civilians had been killed and 5,000 had been wounded in the past month alone. “This war against civilians must stop,” said James Ross, the organisation’s legal and policy director. HRW compiled its report during an undercover fact-finding trip to the zone where British print journalists have been refused access.

The comments came as John Holmes, the United Nations’ senior official on human rights, visited the country amid concern for ethnic Tamil civilians who have been caught up in fighting. Repeating widespread international concern, he called on both sides to do all they could to avoid civilian deaths. Health officials said dozens of civilians are being killed every day as rebels are forced to retreat into an ever-decreasing slice of jungle. Hospitals and designated “safe areas” have been struck by artillery fire and cluster bombs.

An estimated 200,000 civilians are trapped in the war zone. The Red Cross has been successful in evacuating some of the wounded to the eastern city of Trincomalee but says that many more people wish to leave.

The Sri Lankan military claimed there was no fighting in civilian areas. Meanwhile, government forces said they captured an underground bunker with three levels believed to have been a hiding place for the rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who remains at large.

The LTTE has been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for minority Tamils after decades of discrimination by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed.