The United Nations said a weekend attack in Sri Lanka that killed hundreds was the bloodbath it had feared, while the Tamil Tigers and government traded blame ahead of UN Security Council talks over the war.
In the latest reported assault on civilians trapped in the war zone, at least hundreds of people were reported killed on Sunday in an artillery barrage that struck the less than 5 square km the separatist rebels control.
"We've been consistently warning against a bloodbath, and the large-scale killing of civilians including more than 100 children this weekend appears to show that the bloodbath has become a reality," UN spokesman Gordon Weiss said.
The rebels blamed the government, which in turn said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had fired on the people it has been holding hostage for months in a last-minute move to secure international pressure for a truce to stave off defeat.
Getting a clear picture of events in the war zone is next to impossible, as it is generally closed to outsiders and those within it are not fully independent of pressure that is often applied at gunpoint.
Diplomats and officials said the UN Security Council was due to have another informal meeting over Sri Lanka today in New York with the foreign ministers of Britain and France, who had a stormy visit to Sri Lanka at the end of April, both due to attend.
The council is split over whether to elevate discussion over Sri Lanka's war to a formal level where it could act. The United States and Britain are pushing to get a ceasefire, while Russia and China have opposed that.
Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa said the LTTE timed the attack to come just before the UN Security Council meeting, the daily newspaper The Island quoted him as saying.
INDIAN POLL PRESSURE
The LTTE has called for a truce and external intervention as the military has cornered its fighters in a tiny strip of coastline. Sri Lanka has ruled out any truce, saying it would allow the Tigers another chance to rearm as it has in the past.
The United Nations has for months urged restraint, and the UN human rights commissioner has warned both could possibly be blamed for war crimes. Both sides deny the allegations.
Pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com on Monday reported that more than 3,200 people had been killed, quoting the head of an LTTE-controlled aid group, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation.
The attack prompted thousands of Tamils in Canada to block a major highway in protests.
TamilNet said at least 1,200 bodies had been counted, and said "political circles in Colombo" blamed India.
"The large scale slaughter is believed to be a result of India prodding Colombo to finish the war before the change of government," TamilNet said.
Sri Lanka's war is an election issue in the Tamil-majority state of Tamil Nadu, where India's ruling Congress party is keen to maintain power at a poll on Wednesday as politicians there push for a separate state for Sri Lanka's Tamils.
The LTTE has been fighting an all-out civil war since 1983 to create a separate state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, and has blamed India's current ruling coalition for siding with Colombo.
Already, LTTE backers in India have attacked army convoys, and the LTTE has warned defeat in Sri Lanka would spell trouble for regional stability -- a thinly veiled threat to India.
India lists the LTTE as a terrorist group, along with the United States, European Union and Canada, and Congress has had to walk a delicate line ahead of national polls by saying it sides with Tamil grievances but views the LTTE as a security threat.
Meanwhile, troops killed an LTTE military spokesman, Rasiah Punitharooban alias Ilanthirayan or Marshall, in fighting on Sunday, said defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella, also a government minister.