Pictures show human toll of Sri Lankan offensive

First views from inside war zone reveal large number of civilians killed and wounded
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The Independent Online

The mounting civilian cost of Sri Lanka's military operation to crush rebel fighters has been revealed by a series of gruesome photographs taken inside the war zone, where up to 250,000 people are trapped.

The pictures and video footage show scores of people dead or wounded. Some of the images were taken inside a hospital that has been struck repeatedly by artillery shells, killing at least 11 people. Others show civilians, killed along with their young children, inside a supposed "safe zone" that was struck by shells, apparently fired by both government troops and rebels.

The images, obtained by the Associated Press, challenge the effectiveness of the government's purported "zero civilian casualty policy" and its claims that the humanitarian crisis in the war zone in the north of the country has been exaggerated by aid groups.

Sarah Crowe, a spokeswoman for Unicef, said last night: "The fighting is intense and we have evidence civilians and children are getting caught in the crossfire. We are extremely concerned that we are not getting access on a regular basis... Fewer than 10 per cent of those in need are getting help. It's a trickle when it should be a flood."

One photograph taken in the town of Udakattu, inside the government-declared safe zone, showed a number of family members apparently killed in their sleep by an artillery strike on 23 January. The mother and father lay dead on mats on the floor. They were still cradling their two children. Meanwhile, video footage showed a hospital in the conflict zone, packed with wounded civilians. A number of young boys and girls had missing limbs, while an elderly woman missing her right leg was shown simply lying on a mat on the floor. A small boy with a head wound had his left eye sealed shut while one teenage boy with no arms cried in anguish.

Officials said the hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu had been hit several times by artillery shells yesterday and on Sunday. It is understood the shells were fired from the direction of both government and rebel forces.

Gordon Weiss, a UN spokesman in Colombo, said 11 or 12 people had been killed and many more injured in the strikes. "There was another attack on the hospital this lunchtime – another strike. That's four in all," he said.

The release of the images came as Sri Lanka's President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, claimed government forces are on the verge of crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters. The state has been locked in a struggle with the Tamil rebels for 25 years.

In and around the conflict zone, the government continues to demand that civilians move into the "safe zone" – the same zone that was struck last week several times by artillery shells. "The government cannot be responsible for the safety and security of civilians still living among the LTTE terrorists," said Lakshman Hulugalle, director of the government's media centre.

Journalists have been prevented from getting to the conflict zone and foreign media organisations have been warned they will be "chased out" of the country if they "favour" the LTTE.