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Rights group: Free civilians from Sri Lankan war

[AP, Thursday, 5 March 2009 13:15 No Comment]

Human Rights Watch called on the Sri Lankan government and ethnic Tamil rebels Thursday to allow thousands of families to flee the northern war zone. A local doctor said scores of civilians were killed and hundreds wounded in two days of shelling.


A Red Cross staff member who had been helping evacuate wounded patients from the area’s only makeshift clinic was among those killed.


International aid groups have expressed growing concerns for the safety of the civilians in recent weeks as government forces pushed the rebels out of much of their de facto state in the north and cornered them in a tiny strip of land along the northeast coast.


Health officials and witnesses have accused the government of killing civilians in artillery attacks, and the rebels of holding the local population hostage for use as human shields against the military offensive. Both sides deny the accusations.


Aid groups estimate 200,000 civilians might be trapped along with the rebels. The government says the number is closer to 70,000.


Human Rights Watch said the civilians in the area were at grave risk from the fighting and dwindling supplies of aid, and said a "humanitarian disaster" was unfolding in the country.


"A humanitarian evacuation of civilians is desperately needed right now," said Brad Adams, Asia director for the New York-based rights group.


The group, which estimated 2,000 civilians were killed in recent fighting, called on the government and the rebels to work together to let the civilians flee and to allow aid into the area.


The Tamil Tigers denied they were preventing civilians from leaving the tiny area still under their control along the northeastern coast and ruled out any mass evacuation.


In an interview with Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service radio, a rebel leader who identified himself as Thileepan claimed civilians wanted to stay, despite the appalling conditions.


"These people belong to this land, so why would they need to leave these areas?" Thileepan said according to a transcript.


He said the rebels would fight on and that their elusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was still in the war zone.


The top government health official in the rebel pocket, Dr. Thurairaja Varatharajah, said the area was packed with civilians and under constant artillery fire.


"Day and night they are shelling. There isn’t any gap," he told The Associated Press by telephone from a makeshift hospital in the war zone.


The shells fell both inside and outside a government-declared safe zone in rebel territory that the military promised not to attack, Varatharajah said.


The shelling killed 60 civilians Wednesday and injured 159 others, he said. By noon Thursday, five bodies had been brought to the makeshift hospital and 94 more wounded civilians were admitted, he said.


The number of casualties is quickly escalating because civilians are so densely packed into the 19-square-mile (50-square-kilometer) area still under rebel control, he said.


"If one shell falls, there are a big number of deaths, a big number of casualties," he said.


The International Committee of the Red Cross said a local staffer died at the makeshift hospital after suffering shrapnel wounds Wednesday. His 9-year-old son was also wounded.


The aid agency provided few details, but said Vadivel Vijayakumar had been helping bring patients from the clinic to a Red Cross ship for evacuation.


Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara denied the government was responsible for the attacks.


"We don’t even use shells now. It’s all house-to-house fighting, street-to-street," he said. "Hardly any artillery is being used."


Verification of the fighting is not possible because independent journalists are barred from the war zone.


Many of those trapped in the area were running out of food, Varatharajah said. Some were eating only one meal a day and others had begun eating inedible leaves from trees, he said.


Over the past week, 13 people — most of them elderly — died from starvation, he said.


The population also has no clean supply of water or sanitation facilities and is facing outbreaks of diarrhea, chicken pox and hepatitis, he said.

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