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64 people killed in shelling at temporary hospital in Sri Lanka

Sunday, May 3, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lankan forces shelled a makeshift hospital in the war zone Saturday, killing 64 civilians despite a pledge to stop using heavy weapons in its battle with the Tamil Tigers, a rebel-linked website said.

A health official in the war zone confirmed the hospital was hit twice by artillery throughout the day, though the official declined to say who was responsible. The military denied launching the attack.

Sri Lanka has come under increasing international pressure to halt its offensive against the rebels to safeguard the estimated 50,000 ethnic Tamil civilians trapped by the fighting.

The government, which has cornered the Tamil Tigers in a three-mile-long coastal strip, has refused, but it did promise to stop launching artillery and airstrikes into the area.

The TamilNet website said the government hit the makeshift hospital at Mullivaaykkaal twice Saturday morning.

The attacks killed at least 64 patients and bystanders and wounded another 87, according to a government health official. The official, who said he was not certain of the source of the attack, declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The attack killed a female volunteer doctor and wounded three medical workers, the website said.

Though the hospital is inside rebel-held territory, it is run by government doctors.

The government denied the army had shelled the war zone, saying soldiers were only using small arms in the fight to destroy the rebels.

"There is absolutely no truth in these reports," Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said.

Bogollagama spoke after meeting with Japanese peace envoy Yasushi Akashi, the latest high-profile diplomat to arrive in Sri Lanka in the past week.

Akashi met with President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his visit and also traveled to displacement camps where more than 100,000 civilians who fled the war zone in recent weeks have been held.

Akashi said he had heard recent reports of the renewed artillery attacks in the war zone, but he had no way to confirm them. The government has barred journalists and aid workers from the war zone.

"I hope the government is adhering to its positions," he said.

The government and rights groups, meanwhile, accused the rebels of holding the civilians as human shields.

The government airdropped leaflets on the region Friday, appealing to trapped civilians to flee across the front lines and promising to ensure their safety.

Government forces have ousted the rebels from their northern strongholds in recent months and appear on the verge of ending the nation's quarter-century-old civil war.

In fighting Friday, army troops pushed further into the rebels' remaining territory, triggering battles that killed at least 14 insurgents, Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said. He did not provide details of casualties suffered by the government.

The Tamil Tigers, listed as a terrorist group by many Western nations, have been fighting since 1983 for an ethnic Tamil state in the north and east after decades of marginalization by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.


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