Sri Lankan war zone doctors detained

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By RAVI NESSMAN
Monday, May 18th, 2009

Hospital After Bombing

Dead and wounded civilians from the no-fire zone

COLOMBO — Three Sri Lankan doctors who treated hundreds of badly wounded civilians in understaffed, makeshift hospitals in the country's war zone were detained on accusations they gave false information about the casualties to the media, a health official said Monday.

With journalists and nearly all aid workers barred from the war zone, Thurairaja Varatharajah, Thangamuttu Sathyamurthi and V. Shanmugarajah became some of the few sources of information on the toll the war took on the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the area.

The doctors fled the conflict last week as the government's fight against the Tamil Tiger rebels neared its conclusion. The government declared victory Monday in the 25-year-old insurgency.

A health ministry official said the doctors were detained by the military when they fled and were later turned over to police. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The ministry was conducting an inquiry into their conduct, including allegations they disseminated false information, the official said.

Police spokesman Ranjith Gunasekara said he had no information about the doctors, whose fate has generated international concern.

As the fighting in the north escalated, the doctors told harrowing stories of the fighting and the conditions they were forced to work under. They repeatedly relocated their makeshift hospital to schools and other buildings amid heavy shelling as government forces swept over the area. They described how the vast number of wounded civilians overwhelmed their facility, as they ran low on medicine, supplies and staff. Eventually, they could only throw gauze and bandages at the wounded.

They said the war zone, packed with tens of thousands of civilians, was under almost constant artillery attack that caused heavy civilian casualties.

As the doctors told the world of the dire conditions for civilians, government officials denied the men existed. They later acknowledged that Varatharajah and Sathyamurthi were working for the government in the war zone, but said they were under rebel pressure to lie about the fighting. Health officials in Colombo said they had not heard from Shanmugarajah since October.

The government also denied it was shelling the war zone and dismissed reports of large civilian casualties. Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said Sunday, the government freed all the civilians without "shedding a drop of blood."

Varatharajah was the chief government health official in the Mullaittivu district, while Sathyamurthi was a top official in the Kilinochchi district. Their presence in rebel-controlled territory highlighted a quirk of the long civil war here. While the rebels controlled a mini-state in the north, the government ran the social services there to prove its continued sovereignty over the area.

The U.N. said it believed the doctors had been detained as well.

"To the best of our knowledge, the doctors are in the custody of the government. We understood that Dr. Varatharajah was wounded and is in the hospital," U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said.

The United Nations says more than 7,000 civilians were killed in fighting since Jan. 20. The Red Cross said it had evacuated 13,769 sick and wounded and their relatives from the war zone over the last three months.

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Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.