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Sri Lanka govt denies shelling that killed 16 patients

[AFP, Wednesday, 11 February 2009 08:53 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s military Wednesday denied it had shelled a makeshift hospital killing 16 patients, as concern grew for civilians trapped in fighting between government soldiers and Tamil rebels.

"We did not fire at this location on Monday and it is quite possible that the LTTE attacked them," said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers.


The guerrillas, cornered in the north of the country in an area of less than 100 square kilometres (38 square miles) and seemingly close to defeat, were also stopping civilians fleeing rebel-held areas, the spokesman said.


His comments came after the International Committee of the Red Cross said the hospital was shelled. The organisation did not say who was responsible for the attack, but urged government forces and the rebels to spare non-combatants. "We are shocked that patients are not afforded the protection they are entitled to," said Paul Castella, head of the ICRC delegation in Colombo.


"Once more, we call on both parties to meet their obligation under international humanitarian law to spare at all times the wounded and sick people, medical personnel and medical facilities."


News of the shelling on the temporary hospital in Putumattalan came as civilians poured across the frontlines out of territory held by the Tigers, who have battled since 1972 for an independent Tamil homeland.


Sri Lanka’s army has strangled the rebels into a small area of jungle after a string of battlefield victories, and the government has said final victory may come within days.


The military has accused the LTTE of gunning down 19 civilians and wounding another 75 who tried to escape from the dwindling territory still under rebel control on Tuesday.


The Tigers have issued no statements about the latest violence, and no independent verification was available as journalists, rights groups and international observers are unable to report freely from the area.

The authorities have also accused the only two independent groups still working in the conflict area, the ICRC and the UN, of causing panic by putting out exaggerated reports of civilian casualties — a charge denied by both.


Last week, a mob stoned the ICRC offices in Colombo while on Tuesday demonstrators denounced US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had asked for a "no-fire period" to allow civilians to move to safety.

Colombo has also pointed the finger at aid workers, diplomats and journalists saying they are being supportive of the Tamil Tigers.

[Full Coverage]

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