2,000 civilians killed: SL rebels

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels on Sunday accused the government of killing more than 2,000 civilians in 24 hours of artillery attacks, but the military vehemently denied the allegations.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said in a statement posted on the pro-rebel Tamilnet website that the army had unleashed a devastating offensive on the small coastal patch of land that the rebels still control.

"More than 2,000 innocent civilians have been killed in the last 24 hours," Tamilnet quoted S. Pathmanathan, the rebels' chief arms smuggler, as saying.

The website said rescue workers had counted more than 1,200 bodies. Many of the dead were "found in bunkers and inside the tarpaulin tents," it said.

A government doctor who works in the area still under rebel control told the BBC that 378 bodies and 1,122 wounded had been brought to a makeshift hospital on Sunday.

The military dismissed the rebel claims as propaganda, saying the guerrillas themselves had carried out the attack using mortars "to tarnish the image of the security forces in the eyes of the public nationally and internationally."

Sunday's conflicting claims were characteristic of the war, in which independent reporting is impossible as journalists and aid workers are banned from travelling freely in the area.

A British television news team was expelled from Sri Lanka on Sunday after it broadcast allegations of poor treatment of the 200,000 Tamils who are being held in state-run camps after fleeing the fighting.

The report, shown on Channel 4, contained allegations of sexual abuse and claims of dead bodies being left where they fell, as well as water and food shortfalls -- all of which Colombo has denied.

Sri Lanka's leaders believe the military is on the verge of defeating the Tamil rebels, who are holed up on the northeastern coast of the island, after 37 years of conflict.

At the height of their power in 2006, the Tigers -- who want an independent Tamil homeland in the Sinhalese-majority island -- controlled roughly a third of the island.

The Sri Lankan government has refused all international calls for a ceasefire despite reports from the United Nations last month saying up to 6,500 civilians may have been killed and 14,000 wounded in fighting since January.

It has also turned down requests by the UN to send humanitarian officials into the rebel territory, where the UN estimates about 50,000 civilians are trapped.

The government says the number of civilians being held by the Tigers as "human shields" is less than 20,000.

Defence officials reported on Sunday that troops had advanced further into Tiger territory despite fierce rebel resistance.

The Sri Lankan army also said it had uncovered a bizarre contraption that could have been intended as an underwater bunker for the elusive leader of the rebels.

The 360-foot (110-metre) long railway carriage-like construction may have been designed to be wheeled under the sea as a hiding place for Velupillai Prabhakaran, the army said.

Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake told parliament last week that Prabhakaran, 54, was still leading his men.

Prabhakaran has not been seen for more than 18 months, and speculation has been rife that he may have been killed or already fled the island.