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Official: Sri Lanka war zone conditions worsen

[AP, Wednesday, 25 February 2009 22:06 No Comment]

r2197775287 Conditions in Sri Lanka’s overcrowded war zone have rapidly deteriorated as stranded families packed fields filled with human waste, water supplies dwindled and a makeshift hospital ran out of essential medicines, the top health official in the region said Wednesday.


Aid groups estimate more than 200,000 people are trapped in a small strip of rebel-held territory along the northeast coast as the government wages an all-out offensive to destroy the Tamil Tiger rebels and end this country’s 25-year-old civil war.


The government, which says only 70,000 remain trapped, has brushed off growing international calls for a cease-fire to allow the civilians to flee the 25 square miles (65 square kilometers) that remain under rebel control, saying the war is nearly finished.


Troops were fighting Wednesday on the outskirts of the last town under rebel control, said military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said. Most of the civilians were reportedly confined to jungles and small villages nearby.


Dr. Thurairaja Varatharajah, the top government health official inside the war zone, said conditions were growing desperate.


The area — which has come under deadly shelling — was badly overcrowded, he said. Tents housing two or three families each were pressed against each other in paddy fields, along the beach and in nearly every empty piece of land.


The huge influx of civilians fleeing the fighting was overwhelming the facilities on the once sparsely populated coastal strip, Varatharajah said.


Thousands of families were lining up to get water from the few wells in the area, and the toilets often have lines 200 people long, he said.


Most people either use the ocean as a toilet or wait until dark, when fewer people are watching, and relieve themselves in the small gaps between tents, he said.


"There are very bad smells," he said, adding that the overcrowding and filthy conditions were fertile ground for a major disease outbreak.


The World Health Organization warned Tuesday that the health conditions were endangering the lives of the trapped civilians.


"If further measures aren’t taken, health care will continue to deteriorate and outbreaks of malaria, dengue, measles and other communicable diseases could occur," the U.N. agency said in a statement.


Already the makeshift hospital he runs out a school in the area is filled with cases of diarrhea, respiratory infection and an outbreak of chicken pox, Varatharajah said.


In the past two weeks, nine children in the hospital died of pneumonia, meningitis and diarrhea, he said.

The flow of civilians wounded by artillery fire has also continued, he said.


On Tuesday, 50 people wounded in the fighting and the bodies of seven killed were brought in, he said. On Wednesday, 60 wounded and another seven bodies came to the hospital.


But the facility has run out of anesthesia, saline and antibiotics, preventing the doctors from doing the major operations needed to treat the wounded, Varatharajah said.


"We don’t have medicine, we don’t have surgical items," he said.


The government said it was trying to keep the hospital properly supplied.


"We have already sent medicine as well as food items into those areas," government spokesman Anura Yapa said.

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