Mark McDonald & Thomas Fuller / The New York Times – 2009-05-12 22:26:40
HONG KONG (May 12, 2009) — As the United Nations said a “bloodbath” was taking place in Sri Lanka, a leading group of aid agencies said Monday that both the government and the Tamil rebels it is fighting had shown a “wanton disregard for human life.”
“The U.N. has consistently warned against the bloodbath scenario as we’ve watched the steady increase in civilian deaths over the last few months,” Gordon Weiss, the United Nations spokesman in Sri Lanka, said Monday. “The large-scale killing of civilians over the weekend, including the deaths of more than 100 children, shows that that bloodbath has become a reality.”
A government doctor said at least 378 civilians — and perhaps as many as 1,000 — had been killed and more than 1,100 wounded on Saturday and Sunday during intensive shelling of the combat zone on Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast, a boggy sliver of beachfront where Sri Lankan troops have surrounded Tamil separatist fighters.
“There were many who died without medical attention,” the doctor, V. Shanmugarajah, told The Associated Press. “Seeing the number of wounded and from what the people tell me, I estimate the death toll to be around 1,000.”
Concern for civilians trapped in the zone has grown in recent weeks. The area of fighting, which at one time had been set aside by the government as a “no-fire zone,” has shrunk to about 2.5 square miles. About 50,000 civilians, mostly Tamils, are thought to be caught there, along with a holdout force of between 200 and 500 rebel fighters.
Some relief groups and the government have assailed the rebels, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or L.T.T.E., for holding the civilians as human shields. Many of the same agencies and some foreign governments have accused the government of shelling the area — along with the civilians inside — despite pledges to no longer use heavy weapons, artillery or airstrikes. The government and the rebels have blamed each other for the deaths.
The statement from the group of aid agencies was sent by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.
Food, water and shelter are in short supply inside the battle zone, according to accounts from some of those who have escaped the fighting there. An official with a Catholic relief group said Monday that only one field hospital remained in operation, with doctors and other medical staff members fearful of leaving the bunkers where they live because of periodic shelling by the army.
On a pro-rebel Web site, the L.T.T.E. accused the Sri Lankan military of having killed more than 3,200 civilians Sunday and Monday using artillery, mortars and heavy machine-gun attacks.
The government, in a statement by the Defense Ministry, said Monday that the rebels were “bombarding their own civilians.” “Hopefully, in their calculation, this will attract the foreign countries to throw a lifeline to save their souls. L.T.T.E. is desperate with the security forces closing on them. Lives of the L.T.T.E. leadership are hanging on a thread. They know they are running out of time.”
Independent verification of various charges by the government and the rebels has been impossible because the military has banned journalists from the area around the war zone and from refugee camps.
Dr. Shanmugarajah said Sunday’s attacks resulted in the worst carnage he had witnessed in the military’s intensifying campaign to wipe out the rebels.
“We are doing the first aid and some surgeries as quickly as we can,” Dr. Shanmugarajah, who works from a field hospital in the combat zone, was quoted by The A.P. as saying. “We are doing what is possible. The situation is overwhelming; nothing is within our control.”
Mr. Weiss, the United Nations spokesman, said Monday, “To the best of our knowledge, the government doctors trapped with these civilians have proven consistently reliable.”
Mark McDonald reported from Hong Kong, and Thomas Fuller from Bangkok.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.