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Rights group says many Sri Lankan civilians killed

[AP, Friday, 20 February 2009 09:22 No Comment]

Civilian casualties in Sri Lanka’s civil war have skyrocketed in the past two months, Human Rights Watch said Friday, calling on the government to stop firing artillery indiscriminately into the northern war zone.


The criticism came as John Holmes, the U.N.’ top humanitarian official, visited the country amid mounting concern for the fate of the ethnic Tamil civilians in the north. On Thursday, Holmes called on both sides to try to avoid civilian casualties. He was to tour displacement camps near the war zone Friday.


The government has repeatedly denied responsibility for any civilian deaths in its fierce battle to destroy the Tamil Tiger rebels and end the country’s quarter-century civil war. In recent months, the military has cornered the rebels in a small strip of land in the northeast, where tens of thousands of civilians are also trapped.


Health officials and witnesses have accused the government of launching artillery barrages into areas crowded with civilians, while also accusing the rebels of shooting civilians who tried to flee to safety. Confirmation of the allegations is not possible because independent journalists are barred from the area.


The violence has led to a "dramatic increase" in civilian casualties, with independent monitors estimating 2,000 civilians have been killed and another 5,000 wounded over the past month, Human Rights Watch said in a report Friday.


"This ‘war’ against civilians must stop," James Ross, legal and policy director at the New York-based rights organization, said in a statement.


The group accused the military of repeatedly shelling hospitals and government-declared "safe zones" in recent weeks.


It also accused the rebels of violating the laws of war by attacking civilians who have tried to escape and forcing those remaining — including children — into combat or deadly labor along the front lines.


The rebels have denied holding civilians as human shields against the mounting military offensive or shooting at those who flee.


Meanwhile, the rebels said government artillery attacks Thursday killed 34 civilians. In a statement on their Web site, they also said a soldier being held as a prisoner of war was killed Wednesday in a government airstrike.


Aid groups estimate about 200,000 civilians remain trapped in the shrinking war zone along with the rebel fighters. The government says less than 100,000 civilians are there and that more than 30,000 have managed to flee across the front lines in recent weeks.


Human Rights Watch accused the government of secretly screening those who fled to remove potential rebel sympathizers and detaining others in internment camps with the goal of keeping their ordeal from public scrutiny.

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