February 04, 2009
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More than 50 civilians were killed in fighting yesterday between Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army that saw cluster bombs dropped on the last functioning hospital in the north of the country, aid agencies said.
The United Nations said 52 civilians were killed and 80 wounded both inside and outside a "safe zone" the government had promised not to attack.
Gordon Weiss, a spokesman for the UN, said the region's only remaining hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu was evacuated early this morning after 16 hours of shelling that included a cluster bomb attack.
A dozen patients were killed in the shelling, which both sides deny came from them, although reports suggest air strikes were used against the hospital. Only the Sri Lankan army has such capability. Almost all the remaining wards have been evacuated.
A quarter of a million civilians may be trapped in the combat zone, according to the UN. The Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, have been fighting for a separate state for the Tamil minority since 1983 but the army claims they have been reduced to just 600 "armed combatants".
The attacks happened on the day the country marked its 61st anniversary of independence with a show of military strength in the capital, Colombo. In an address to the nation, the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, said the army had been able to "nearly destroy terror".
"Our heroic forces today have given us an opportunity to celebrate independence in a country nearly free from terrorism," he said in a speech from a heavily guarded promenade, before watching a military parade.
The Tamil Tigers, who had for three years built a mini-state covering 15,000 square kilometres, are cornered in a small area of the country's north-east.
There can be no independent verification of the military's claims as journalists are not allowed to travel to the war zone nor allowed free access to "liberated areas". The government sponsors tours with limited access for certain news organisations.
Foreign governments called for a temporary ceasefire to allow casualties out and aid into the war zone. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and her British counterpart, David Miliband, said "both sides need to allow civilians and wounded to leave the conflict area and to grant access for humanitarian agencies".
The joint US-British announcement yesterday came after a quartet of Sri Lanka's prominent foreign backers – the US, Japan, EU, and Norway – called on the rebels to negotiate terms of surrender to avoid further killing.
The quartet, which sponsored the now defunct Oslo-led peace process, has considerable sway on the island. Five years ago the group raised $4.5bn as a peace incentive. It said yesterday: "There remains probably only a short period of time before the LTTE loses control of all areas in the north. The LTTE and the government should recognise that further loss of life of civilians and combatants will serve no cause."
Journalists in Colombo, speaking on condition of anonymity, doubted whether the LTTE had been defeated. "Unless [LTTE leader Velupillai] Prabhakaran's body turns up and the top leadership give up, we don't see it. The LTTE are a guerrilla outfit, they melt away and will come back with terrorism. It's not over. It's probably just begun."