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Civilians hit with UN team in Sri Lankan ‘no-fire’ zone

[IHT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009 17:44 No Comment]

28lanka_550 A glimpse of the hellish fate of civilians stuck in the epicenter of Sri Lanka’s war emerged this week, as the United Nations confirmed that staff members and their families had come under heavy shelling in what the government told them was a no-fire zone, and a government health official, also behind the front line, described artillery attacks on a hospital compound.

 

For several weeks, fighting has intensified between government troops and rebels of an ethnic separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also called the Tamil Tigers. The battles have pushed civilians living in rebel-held areas steadily into an ever-shrinking corner of northeastern Sri Lanka.

 

The last major rebel-held town, Mullaittivu, fell on Sunday, the government announced.

 

The government has insisted that its battles with the Tamil Tigers have carefully spared civilians. But the latest information emerging from behind the front line, which has been closed to journalists, challenges that claim, even as it signals that the Tamil Tigers are using civilians as shields.

 

The rebels have fought for 25 years to carve out a separate homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority, relying on conventional ground, sea and air forces and their trademark cadre of suicide bombers.

 

The predicament of a UN team, which had been delivering aid to families displaced by the fighting, showed the dwindling options for civilians.

 

First, the team of mostly Sri Lankan aid workers and their families were prevented by the guerrillas, also known as the LTTE, from leaving the war zone. Then, on Saturday, they took shelter in what the government described as a no-fire zone, erecting a temporary compound, around which many civilians had also gathered.

 

A shell landed near the compound on Saturday evening, and then another early Sunday morning, killing nine civilians and wounding more than 20, according to a memo sent by UN officials in Sri Lanka to their headquarters in New York.

 

"Our team on the ground was certain the shell came from the Sri Lanka military, but apparently in response to an LTTE shell," the memo read. "All around them was the carnage from casualties from people who may have thought they would be safer being near the UN. Sadly they were wrong that night."

 

A United Nations official, speaking Tuesday on condition of anonymity, said the team on the ground had suspected that the rebels were firing at government forces from close to where civilians were taking shelter.

"Both sides are egregiously flouting humanitarian norms and principles, and as a result civilians are dying," the official said.

 

The spokesman for the Sri Lankan military, Brigadier V.U.B. Nanayakkara, denied that government artillery fire had hit a UN compound or a hospital compound. He said that either the relief and hospital officials had been pressed by the rebels to disseminate false information or that the Tamil Tigers had been responsible for the shelling.

 

"How can they say it has come from the army artillery?" he asked by telephone from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. He accused the rebels in turn of barring ambulances to bring wounded civilians to hospitals outside the war zone.

 

On Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that during a meeting Tuesday with Pranab Mukherjee, India’s external affairs minister, Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, gave assurances that Sri Lankan forces would respect the safe zone to "minimize the effects of conflict on Tamil civilians," citing statements released by the two countries.

 

The United Nations also said Wednesday that it would try for a second time on Thursday to help evacuate hundreds of wounded people from the area, including 50 seriously wounded children, Reuters reported.

The Sri Lankan military has seized important rebel strongholds in recent weeks, pushing the Tamil Tigers, and more than 200,000 civilians believed to be in the rebel-controlled area, into a small corner of jungle in the island’s northeast.

 

Official says up to 300 killed

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