Sri Lanka Attacks Said to Kill Dozens in Hospital

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By MARK McDONALD
Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

May 12 Hospital Attack
HONG KONG — At least 50 people were killed Wednesday when a primary school in Sri Lanka that had been converted into a field hospital was shelled for the second day, news agencies reported. Dr. Thurairaja Varatharajah, the top government health official in the war zone, told The Associated Press that the attack killed at least 50 people, including patients and relatives, and wounded about 60 others. He said heavy shelling continued throughout the day.

In the same compound on Tuesday, 49 people were reported to have been killed when mortar rounds hit the administrative office and a ward where victims of earlier shelling were being treated, the reports said.

Separately, a local worker for the International Committee of the Red Cross and his mother were killed in shelling on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Geneva-based humanitarian agency said.

The 31-year-old man was one of about 20 Sri Lankans working for the Red Cross in the dwindling two-square mile conflict zone, where thousands of civilians remain trapped on a sandy strip as intense fighting between the Tamil rebels and government takes place around them.

“We are not sure if it was a direct hit or indirect hit, but they were killed in cross fire,” said Marçal Izard, a Red Cross spokesman. “They seem to have been sleeping in trenches reinforced by sandbags, like most of the people living in the zone.”

Dozens of civilians each day are being wounded and killed, Mr. Izard said, but the Red Cross has not been able to confirm the strikes on the hospital, which is run by local authorities. The humanitarian organization has also been unable to land a ferry to pick up hundreds of seriously wounded people from the zone since May 9 because of the heavy fighting.

Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that new satellite imagery and eyewitness accounts indicated that the government was continuing to use heavy artillery in the densely populated zone. Many analysts believe the shelling is meant to finally rout the Tamil rebels, in the end game of a conflict that has gone on for a quarter-century.

The commercial satellite images, taken on May 10, were analyzed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They show dozens of structures that appear to have been destroyed between May 6 and May 10, the analysis said, and multiple craters that appear to reflect the impact of heavy weaponry.

The government has denied using artillery or air strikes in the area — a claim widely disputed by human rights groups and foreign governments — and it has accused the rebels of shelling their fellow Tamil citizens. On Wednesday, the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry reported on its Web site that in searching and clearing the site of earlier fighting, it had found a multi-barrel rocket launcher that it said was used by the rebels.

Human Rights Watch also quoted a 29-year-old man who has been sheltering for several days with his family in a dug-out trench with no cover, saying that a shell struck close by on May 9, killing two members of his family. The man, identified by the organization as R. Raman, is quoted saying he is afraid to flee because he watched rebel fighters shoot at least fifteen people in April as they tried to escape.

The battle zone has shrunk to a small coastal strip of sand, palm trees and jungle in the northeastern part of Sri Lanka as the military has steadily surrounded and slowly squeezed the dwindling guerrilla force.

The makeshift hospital in the former school is the last remaining medical center serving the estimated 50,000 civilians trapped in the war zone. Confirmations of the shelling and the casualties at the hospital on Tuesday were given by Dr. Varatharajah and by a political official who was quoted on a Web site used by the main rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or L.T.T.E. Human Rights Watch said it had also heard from doctors who confirmed the shelling.

Dr. Varatharajah’s account was similar to one given on the pro-rebel Web site, citing an administrative officer identified as K. Tharmakulasingam, who said 47 people had been killed there on Wednesday and 55 wounded.

It has not been possible in recent months to verify the many charges and countercharges, claims and counterclaims in the bitter war between the government and the Tamil Tigers. Independent journalists and most aid agencies have been barred from the war zone.

Sharon Otterman contributed reporting from New York.

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© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company