UN: staff came under fire in Sri Lanka 'safe zone'

Ravi Nessman
January 28, 2009

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) - Dozens of U.N. workers and their relatives spent a terrifying night huddling in hastily built bunkers as artillery fire pounded a civilian "safe zone" in Sri Lanka's war-wracked north, according to an internal U.N. memo.

The memo, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, said the artillery shells killed nine civilians in a nearby bunker and were apparently fired by government forces.

The military denied the charge and President Mahinda Rajapaksa renewed the government's pledge not to launch attacks in the refuge as it fought to crush the Tamil Tiger rebels and end the country's 25-year-old civil war.

As concern mounted for the estimated 250,000 civilians in the war zone, Dr. Thurairajah Varatharajah, the top health official in the area, said at least 1,140 civilians - 248 younger than 15 - were wounded in the fighting and brought to three local hospitals.

The death toll was difficult to calculate because many civilians had stopped bringing dead relatives to the hospital amid the heavy fighting, he told The Associated Press by telephone from the war zone.

"In my opinion, there are a lot of deaths. More than 250 to 300," he said, adding his estimate was based on reports from residents who came to the hospitals.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said no civilians had been killed, though some forced to build fortifications by the rebels - known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - might have been wounded in crossfire.

"There were no civilians killed," he said. "We are targeting the LTTE. We are not targeting any civilians so there can't be any civilians killed."

However, an internal U.N. memo sent from the office in Colombo to U.N. headquarters in New York said local workers and their relatives - 95 civilians in all - came under repeated artillery and machine gun fire as they sought refuge inside the government declared "safe zone" for ethnic Tamil civilians inside rebel territory.

The memo said the government ordered the group - which was stuck in rebel-held territory because the Tamil Tigers would not give them permission to leave - to relocate Saturday to the refuge.

They quickly established a new base there complete with bunkers, but that evening, they were nearly hit by a shell.

"Our team on the ground was certain the shell came from the Sri Lanka military, but apparently in response to an LTTE firing," the memo said.

The U.N. staff, which had already given their coordinates to the military, called senior military officials and Cabinet ministers to complain, the memo said. But another barrage a few hours later landed just 30 feet (10 meters) from staff members huddled in the bunkers.

That attack hit a nearby bunker filled with civilians, killing nine and wounding more than 20 others, the memo said.

"Fortunately, because of good preparation, all staff and dependents were in hastily built bunkers and only one staff member was injured in the leg," the memo said. "But all around them was the carnage from casualties from people who may have thought they would be safer being near the UN. Sadly, they were wrong that night."

The area came under attack again early Monday from heavy machine gun fire, with shells landing 150 to 350 feet (50 to 100 meters ) away, the memo said. In that instance, the government appeared to be laying down covering fire for incoming troops, it said.

The military denied firing into the "safe zone."

"If they came under fire, then definitely it has been done by the LTTE," Nanayakkara said, adding he doubted the workers could tell where the attacks originated.

"How does the person on the receiving end say it is from the government side? They all are trying to tarnish the image of the military and stop this offensive," he said.

The Tamil Tigers have fought since 1983 to create a separate state for minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war.

Government forces have forced the rebels out of all their major strongholds and boxed them into a shrinking area of about 115 square miles (300 square kilometers) of jungle and villages. The Red Cross estimates 250,000 civilians are trapped there as well.

Paul Castella, the head of the local delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the humanitarian situation for the civilians in the north had become "critical."

Two hospitals visited by Red Cross workers were damaged by the fighting, only nine doctors were left in the area and civilians in the region were mainly living on irregular shipments of food aid, he said.

"They have no land, no cattle," he said. "They eat less and less so they can save some food for the next day and the last time the food went in was the 16th of January."

Amid the reports of rising casualties, Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee rushed to Sri Lanka on Tuesday night to meet with Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa gave assurances Sri Lankan forces would respect the safe zone to "minimize the effects of conflict on Tamil civilians," according to a government statement.

The conflict is of special concern to India, home to some 56 million Tamils