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Red Cross: Hundreds killed in Sri Lankan war zone

[AP, Tuesday, 27 January 2009 17:28 No Comment]

At least 300 civilians were wounded and scores feared killed by Sri Lankan army artillery shells fired into a designated "safe zone" for ethnic Tamils trapped by fighting between the military and Tamil rebels, a health official alleged Tuesday.

 

The shelling comes as the rebels continue to fall back, pulling their forces and civilians into the last remaining areas of dense jungle still under their control and leaving behind ghost towns.

TamilNet, a pro-rebel Web site, said more than 300 civilians were killed by the shelling on Monday. The military denied firing into the zone.

 

The Red Cross said Tuesday that "hundreds" of people have been killed in Sri Lanka’s northern Vanni region.

 

"People are being caught in the crossfire, hospitals and ambulances have been hit by shelling and several aid workers have been injured while evacuating the wounded," said Jacques de Maio, the International Committee of the Red Cross’ head of operations for South Asia in Geneva.

 

The Red Cross estimated 250,000 people were trapped in intense fighting and appealed to both sides to allow the safe movement of civilians out of the combat zone.

 

"When the dust settles, we may see countless victims and a terrible humanitarian situation, unless civilians are protected and international humanitarian law is respected in all circumstances," said de Maio. But he warned "time is running out."

 

The health official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the government, said he believed the government was responsible for the causalities because of the direction from which the fire came.

 

The official said hundreds of wounded had reached nearby hospitals, but it remained difficult to obtain a full account of the casualty toll in the 13.5-square-mile (35-square-kilometer) government-declared "safe zone" near Mullaittivu.

 

Journalists on Tuesday were allowed rare access to Mullaittivu, the last town held by the rebels before it fell to the government advance on Sunday. The media has been largely barred from the front lines and it was impossible to enter the "safe zone" to verify the casualty reports.

 

Only the cries of gulls and the distant thunder of artillery could be heard in this seaside town that was emptied by the departing rebels.

 

Neighboring India has expressed concern at the humanitarian situation and sent External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee for talks with top Sri Lankan officials Tuesday night. The conflict is of special concern to India, home to some 56 million Tamils.

 

The government unilaterally declared a "safe zone" last week in a small section of rebel-held territory and called on civilians to move into that area, where they would be protected. But there have been several reports of artillery fire in that area, including Monday’s shelling.

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