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16 killed in shelling at Sri Lankan hospital

19 others die while fleeing area

By Ravi Nessman
Associated Press / February 11, 2009
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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - At least 16 patients being treated at a makeshift hospital in the northern Sri Lankan war zone were killed by shelling, the Red Cross said yesterday, and the military accused rebels of killing 19 other civilians fleeing the area.

The United Nations, meanwhile, said it was outraged by the deaths of hundreds of people inside rebel territory and urged both sides to avoid fighting in civilian areas.

The government accuses the Tamil Tiger rebels of holding civilians hostage in the war zone to use as human shields against the military's offensive. The rebels deny the accusation.

International human rights groups say more than 200,000 civilians are believed to be trapped in the patch of territory still under rebel control. Reports of civilian deaths have increased in recent weeks, and the Red Cross, the last major aid agency allowed to operate in rebel-held territory, said at least 16 patients were killed Monday in shelling near a community center in the town of Putumattalan, where medical workers had evacuated many sick and wounded civilians.

"We are shocked that patients are not afforded the protection they are entitled to," said Paul Castella, head of the Sri Lankan delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said the insurgents fired early yesterday on a group of more than 1,000 people trying to escape the war zone, killing 19 and wounding 75.

Yesterday, local fishermen helped Red Cross workers ferry about 240 of the patients to a chartered boat to evacuate them from the war zone, said Sarasi Wijesinghe, a Red Cross spokeswoman. She said 140 other patients remained at the makeshift hospital, but the aid group hoped to evacuate them today.

More than 1,000 civilians fled yesterday, and 6,599 reportedly crossed Monday, even as a female bomber killed 19 soldiers and 10 civilians at an army checkpoint. The government earlier said the blast had killed 20 soldiers and eight civilians.

Amnesty International condemned the attack as a clear violation of international law.

"Blurring the distinction between civilians and combatants means that thousands of ordinary people, desperate to flee the conflict area, are at greater risk of reprisals and getting caught in crossfire," said Yolanda Foster, the London-based group's Sri Lankan researcher.

In Geneva, the UN refugee agency said it was "outraged by the unnecessary loss of hundreds of lives and the continued suffering of innocent civilians" inside rebel territory. It urged the government and Tamil Tigers to avoid fighting inside a government-designated "safe zone" where many civilians were reportedly killed.

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