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Sri Lankan president says rebels nearly crushed

[AP, Monday, 2 February 2009 18:37 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s president declared Monday the army is on the verge of crushing the Tamil Tiger rebels after a 25-year war, as images from the conflict zone showing scores of dead and wounded civilians surfaced.

The photographs and video footage, which were handed to The Associated Press, highlight the plight of some 250,000 civilians trapped in the shrinking war zone in the Mullaittivu district where the Tamil Tigers have been boxed in by advancing troops. They emerged as a hospital in the war zone was shelled for the second straight day, leaving 11 patients dead.


Journalists have been barred from traveling to the area, but images from the war zone over the past week show what appear to be scores of civilians killed or injured in artillery attacks.


The images were provided to The Associated Press by independent observers in the region, who did not wish to be identified because they feared government retaliation.


One photo from the town of Udakattu, inside a government-declared "safe zone," showed family members apparently killed in their sleep by artillery Jan. 23. The mother and father lay dead on mats on the floor, still cradling their two children between them.


In recent months, the army has wrested all major towns once controlled by the Tigers, who are now defending a 115-square-mile (300-square-kilometer) pocket.


"The strongholds of terror once believed to be invincible … have fallen in rapid succession, bringing the final elimination of terror from our motherland and the dawn of true freedom to all our people well within our reach," President Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a message to mark the 61st Independence Day that will be celebrated Wednesday.


It is the first time the Sri Lankan government has come this close to a military solution to Asia’s longest-running civil war, centered over demands for a separate Tamil state in the north and the east.

As the military pressed ahead, civilians continued to suffer in the north.


Video footage given to the AP showed a hospital in the war zone packed with severely injured people. Many were forced to lie on mats underneath beds, because of overcrowding.


Young boys and girls had legs amputated, an elderly woman missing her right leg was forced to lie on a mat on the floor. A small boy with a head wound had his left eye sealed shut. A teenage boy with no arms cried in despair, while an elderly man nearby lay on a bed with one leg amputated above the knee and the other below it.


The Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital was hit with several artillery shells on Sunday and Monday, Red Cross spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne.


Kandasamy Tharmakulasingham, a local health official, confirmed the attacks. In total, 11 people were killed in the attacks and 26 wounded.


Sarasi and Tharmakulasingham couldn’t say who fired the shells.


But Dr. Thurairajah Varatharajah, the top government health official in the area, said two of the attacks appeared to have come from the army.

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