49 killed in SL hospital attack

COLOMBO: A mortar shell struck the only functioning medical facility in Sri Lanka's northern war zone Tuesday morning, killing 49 patients and bystanders and wounding more than 50 others, a government health official said. It was the second time this month that the facility was hit.

The attack came after a weekend of heavy shelling that killed hundreds of civilians trapped in the war zone. The military has denied accusations that it was still shelling the tiny coastal strip under rebel control, which is packed with an estimated 50,000 civilians.

Dr. Thurairaja Varatharajah, the top government health official in the war zone, said a single mortar shell hit the admissions ward in the makeshift hospital Tuesday morning. In addition to the 49 killed, scores of others were wounded, and he expected the death toll to rise, he said.

Shells were still hitting the area hours later, including one that landed about 150 yards (meters) from the hospital, Varatharajah said.

A second hospital official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said a hospital administrator was among those killed.

It was the second time this month that the facility had come under heavy fire. On May 2, 64 civilians died when the hospital was hit by artillery.

Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government bars journalists and aid workers from the war zone.

Rebel spokesman Seevaratnam Puleedevan blamed the attack on the government, and said civilians were fleeing in all directions inside the tiny war zone, seeking safety.

"There's no place to seek shelter or protect themselves," he said.

He called on the international community to force the government to stop its offensive against the violent separatist group, which has been fighting for a homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority for more than a quarter century.

"We are really afraid that if the Sri Lankan government is not being pressured to stop the carnage, that many more civilians will die in the hundreds," he said.

Sri Lankan defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella denied the army had launched the attack. He said government forces had not launched any airstrikes or artillery into the area.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday that he was "appalled at the killings of hundreds of civilians in Sri Lanka over the weekend. Thousands of Sri Lankans have already died in the past several months due to the conflict, and more still remain in grave danger." In a statement, Ban reiterated his call for both parties to cease using heavy weapons and accused the rebels of "reckless disrespect" for the safety of civilians. Human rights groups accuse the rebels - who are listed as a terror group by the U.S. and E.U. - of keeping the civilians hostage for use as human shields.

Two overnight artillery barrages pounded the area over the weekend, with several shells landing inside newly demarcated "safe zone," where the government had urged civilians to gather, according to Dr. V. Shanmugarajah, another doctor at the hospital.

A total of 430 ethnic Tamil civilians, including 106 children, were either brought to the hospital for burial or died at the facility after those attacks, he said. But the death toll was likely closer to 1,000 because many of those killed would have been buried in the bunkers where they were slain, and many of the gravely wounded never made it to the hospital for treatment, he said.

The shelling attacks - which the U.N. labeled a "bloodbath" - marked some of the worst violence in this Indian Ocean island nation since the civil war flared up again more than three years ago.

In New York, the British, French and Austrian foreign ministers urged the U.N. Security Council to take action to prevent more killings of civilians. Sri Lanka is not on the Security Council agenda because Russia, China, Japan and Vietnam consider the fighting an internal matter.

"Are we waiting, all of us, to the end of the bombing, to the end of any life - not only suffering, but any life in this siege pocket?" asked French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

U.N. figures compiled last month showed that nearly 6,500 civilians had been killed in three months this year as the government drove the separatist rebels from their northern strongholds and vowed to end the war.

The rebels, listed as a terror group by the U.S. and the EU, blamed the artillery assaults on the government. Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe denied the government was responsible and claimed health officials in the area were under pressure from the rebels to lie.

Army troops pushed further into the remaining rebel territory Monday, killing dozens of rebels in fierce fighting.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said troops found 35 rebel bodies after the fighting. He did not provide details on casualties suffered by army.