Sri Lanka: Wounded Flee Shelling of a Hospital

The New York Times
The hospital, in the rebel-held village of Puthukkudiyiruppu, became a target.
The wounded had poured into the hospital over the last several weeks, some ferried on tractors, others on the backs of motorcycles, international aid workers said, as the war between the Sri Lankan military and the ethnic Tamil rebels moved farther and farther into a small corner of Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast.
Artillery attacks, which began on Sunday and hit the pediatric ward and other parts of the hospital, continued through Tuesday. One shell landed in the surgery ward, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and when it was clear that even the hospital was not safe, the wounded began to flee.

By Wednesday, following another round of early morning artillery attacks, patients and staff left the hospital and moved northeast, deeper into rebel-held territory.

A Red Cross spokeswoman, Sophie Romanens, said by telephone from Colombo that the Red Cross was looking for an appropriate place to settle the wounded. The total number of patients had dwindled from 500 Sunday, before the shelling began, to 300 Wednesday, she said. At least 14 people had been killed and 30 wounded in the first two days of attacks on the hospital and casualties from fighting Tuesday and early Wednesday were not known.

In addition to the artillery shells that struck the hospital, cluster munitions had also landed in its vicinity in recent days, the United Nations reported. Both the United Nations and the Red Cross have been careful not to accuse either side of responsibility, although a U.N. spokesman, Gordon Weiss, said Wednesday that “the government of Sri Lanka has assured they do not procure cluster munitions and we have accepted that assurance.”

The fate of the hospital, officially run by the Sri Lankan government but deep in the last bastion of territory controlled by the rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also called the Tamil Tigers, signals a particularly ruthless turn in Asia’s longest-running civil war.

Repeatedly over the past few days, both sides have been warned to spare the hospital and have been reminded that attacking a known medical center violates international rules of war.

The foreign secretary, Palitha T. B. Kohona, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that the government had urged the Red Cross to vacate the hospital and evacuate the wounded to areas the government had defined as safe zones. He said the government forces would have had no reason to shell the hospital, and he blamed the rebels for it.

The Red Cross spokeswoman in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, said that under international law a hospital is always considered a safe zone. “It shall not be attacked under any circumstances,” the spokeswoman, Sophie Romanens, said.

The Red Cross is pressing both sides to allow for the evacuation of the most critically wounded across the front line.

The Tamil Tigers have been widely accused of preventing civilians from leaving the dwindling territory under their control. The rebels have not been reachable for comment.

In New York on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch described a government statement that it is not responsible for the safety of civilians who remain in areas controlled by the rebels as “an appalling disregard for the well-being of the civilian population and contrary to international law.”

“The Sri Lankan government knows full well that the civilians caught up in the current fighting are dangerously trapped,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government shows callous indifference by saying civilians should not expect the government to consider their safety and security.”

The government has made impressive gains in recent weeks as it has pushed its way into the de facto state that the Tamil Tigers ran for many years in northeastern Sri Lanka. On Tuesday, the military announced its latest prize: what it said were the last of seven airstrips controlled by the rebels.

Meanwhile, in a joint statement Tuesday, several central allies of the Sri Lankan government urged both sides to refrain from firing into or out of the vicinity of the hospital to let food and medical assistance reach civilians and to evacuate those who need urgent medical attention. The statement, endorsed by Norway, Japan, the European Union and the United States, also called on the rebels, who are also known by the initials L.T.T.E., to lay down their arms. It also urged the government to call a cease-fire so that civilians could leave the war zone.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, meeting in Washington, also said that they want a political solution, The Associated Press reported. The diplomats said in a statement that “the time to resume political discussions is now.”

International aid agencies estimate that 250,000 civilians are trapped in the fighting. Mr. Kohona said that number, as well as fears of a humanitarian crisis, were exaggerated. The government maintains that it has taken steps to minimize civilian casualties and that it has rejected the rebels’ call for a cease-fire.

“We believe the L.T.T.E.’s campaign to get a cease-fire declared using international pressure and exploiting the so-called humanitarian crisis is purely to gain a breathing space,” Mr. Kohona said. The few civilians who have managed to leave the rebel-held areas, he continued, “do not have any signs of people who have experienced deprivation.”

The Associated Press said Monday that it had received photographs and video images of dead and maimed civilians from inside the war zone, offering what it called “a horrifying glimpse of the toll the war is taking on civilians.”

Mr. Kohona said he had not seen the images and could not comment on their authenticity.

It is impossible to verify what is happening behind the front line. The government prohibits journalists access.

04 February 2009

By: Somini Sengupta