Sri Lanka: Criticism escalates over 'bloodbath'

Correspondent

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Sharpening its criticism of Sri Lanka’s military offensive, the United Nations warned Monday of a “bloodbath” unfolding behind rebel lines where hundreds of civilians were reportedly killed over the weekend.

Medical officials have told news agencies that more than 400 were killed and another 1,100 injured by heavy shelling that appeared to come from government-held territory around a tiny pocket of land held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A UN spokesman in Colombo echoed these accounts and said more than 100 children were among the dead.

Deflecting blame

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But, in a familiar refrain, Sri Lanka has alleged that the LTTE is responsible for the barrage of mortars, rockets, and other heavy weaponry. Authorities accuse the separatist group of massacring civilians to goad the international community into intervening in the conflict, which appears headed for a government victory. In recent months Colombo has repeatedly rejected calls for a cease-fire.

There is broad frustration among Sri Lankan officials over the criticism by the UN and other observers of its war efforts. They argue that far more emphasis should be put on the refusal by the LTTE to allow civilians to flee the fighting. At least 50,000 are trapped in the war zone according to UN estimates. Nearly 200,000 more have been evacuated since November to refugee camps. (Read about the tough conditions in the camps here.)

Firing at hospitals

UN officials say they have also criticized the LTTE but that it doesn’t absolve the government of its responsibility under international law to exercise restraint against civilian targets such as hospitals. Human Rights Watch said Saturday that government troops have repeatedly shelled medical facilities that were clearly identified to them.

In an interview on Thursday, Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa poured scorn on recent UN estimates of the death toll. He said the UN and media were misled by Tamil doctors and aid workers who, in turn, had been pressured by the LTTE into manufacturing reports.

He denied repeatedly that his troops were killing civilians. When told that UN staff had documented deaths, he shot back instantly, “No. That is LTTE propaganda. The UN is getting information from LTTE,” he said.

‘Nobody is starving’

The Red Cross, which is the only international relief agency operating in the war zone, has warned of acute shortages of food and medicines there. But when asked about high rates of child malnutrition among recent evacuees, Mr. Rajapaksa began to laugh. Nobody is starving, he insisted.

“We send food, we send medicine. We evacuate them … I don’t think it’s a problem for them. I don’t think food is a problem,” he said.

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