Refugees killed in artillery attack by Sri Lankan army

At least 45 civilians were killed in Sri Lanka when government artillery fire hit a camp where those fleeing the fighting had taken shelter, the Tamil Tiger rebels claimed. Although it was impossible to verify the Tigers' figures, the Red Cross said its staff had seen 18 bodies and 50 wounded being taken to a local hospital yesterday.

The incident is the latest in a series in which there have been heavy civilian casualties since civil war returned to Sri Lanka this year. Independently confirmed information on what happened was scant last night, but the Red Cross and European ceasefire monitors said they had teams on their way to the scene to investigate.

The incident took place in Tiger-held territory at Kathiraveli, near Batticaloa. According to the Tigers, the area came under sustained fire from government artillery and a school where civilians had taken shelter was hit. The rebels said at least 125 people were injured.

Civilians had taken refuge in the school after they fled earlier fighting near their homes in the area. There are about 35,000 internally displaced people in the Kathiraveli area alone, according to the Red Cross - an indication of how serious the violence in Sri Lanka has become.

A spokesman for the Sri Lankan military confirmed that there had been exchanges of fire in the area for the past few days, but said he was not aware of civilian casualties in the area.

"From morning they have been firing artillery at us," said Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe. "We have been retaliating with artillery and mortars. There's no army offensive going on."

He claimed the Tigers were using civilians as human shields. "We have been asking people to leave Tiger areas and to come to our areas, and 594 people have done so," he said. "But some of them are being kept as human shields."

The Tigers said on their website: "The mindless and cruel attack on a helpless refugee population which has already been subjected to blockades of all sorts of essential items is difficult to understand."

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