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Official: Shelling in Sri Lanka war zone kills 10

[AP, Friday, 1 May 2009 09:16 No Comment]

The Sri Lankan military fired scores of artillery shells into the northern war zone overnight, killing at least 10 civilians despite a pledge to stop using heavy weapons in its offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels, a health official in the region said Friday.

 

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara denied the army had fired artillery into the 3-mile- (5 kilometer-) long strip of coastal land still under rebel control, and said the insurgents might be setting off the explosions themselves to implicate the government.

 

Suspected rebels also opened a new front in the war — in cyberspace — hacking the army’s official Web site and replacing it with photos that purportedly showed civilian casualties of the war. The military, which blamed the Tamil Tigers for the cyber attack, said it planned to have the problem fixed Friday.

 

The shelling of the battle zone, which is crowded with tens of thousands of civilians, began Thursday night and lasted until Friday morning, with more than 100 shells hitting the area, said a government health official who witnessed the barrage.

 

One shell hit the top of a coconut tree and exploded, sending shrapnel raining down on the civilians below and killing 10, the official said.

 

The official declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

 

Sri Lanka pledged Monday to stop using heavy weaponry to prevent civilian casualties. However, there have been persistent reports of continued shelling and airstrikes as the offensive has pushed forward.

 

International concern over the fate of the estimated 50,000 ethnic Tamil civilians trapped in the war zone has grown in recent days, following a U.N. report that nearly 6,500 civilians were killed in the last three months.

 

The British and French foreign ministers called for a humanitarian truce during a rare visit here Wednesday and Japan’s special mediator for the conflict, Yasushi Akashi, was here Friday to call on the government to safeguard civilians.

 

President Mahinda Rajapaksa rejected the calls for a cease-fire, and on Friday he praised the war effort.

 

"We fearlessly stood up to a brand of terrorism that the entire world believed was invincible," he said in a May Day address.

 

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a state for minority Tamils in the north and east after decades of marginalization by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.

 

The latest military offensive has cornered them in a tiny strip of northeastern coast and appears on the verge of defeating the rebel group.

 

Early Friday, naval forces fired on two rebel suicide boats and a third attack craft, destroying them and killing 23 Tamil Tiger sailors, Nanayakkara said.

 

The government and aid groups, meanwhile, were struggling to cope with more than 120,000 civilians who fled the war zone last week, overwhelming displacement camps.

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