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Concerns raised over civilian deaths in Sri Lanka violence

Human Rights Watch estimates that 2,000 people have been killed in the government offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels. The group urges both sides to allow civilians to flee the war zone.

February 21, 2009|Mark Magnier

NEW DELHI — The number of civilian deaths in Sri Lanka has risen sharply in the last month, Human Rights Watch said Friday, calling on both sides in the protracted civil war to stop firing at civilians or shelling areas where they are concentrated.

The government has been battling the Tamil Tiger rebel group, which wants a homeland for the Tamil minority, for the last 25 years. In recent weeks the army has stepped up its offensive, boxing in the rebels in a smaller area in the north. But by some estimates, up to 100,000 civilians are trapped in the war zone, with both sides unwilling to halt their fire and let them flee.

Late Friday, the government said the Tigers had used two light aircraft to bomb Colombo, the capital, injuring 36 people.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said the craft were shot down, with one landing on the Inland Revenue Department building and the other in the vicinity of the airport. He said the bodies of both pilots were recovered.

But the fact that the aircraft were able to reach Colombo, on the island's southwestern coast, is an embarrassment for a government that claimed it had destroyed the rebels' hidden runways and neutralized its small air wing.

New York-based Human Rights Watch estimated that 2,000 Sri Lankan civilians have been killed in the fighting since January and 5,000 others wounded. The figures could not be independently verified because the government does not give independent humanitarian groups or media access to the conflict area.

The report came as the United Nations' top humanitarian official, John Holmes, neared the end of a two-day tour of displacement camps in the north that house Tamil civilians who have fled the war zone.

The U.N. earlier estimated that 40 noncombatants were being killed each day in the war zone, or about 1,200 a month. "Civilians are bearing the brunt of this conflict," said Neil Buhne, U.N. humanitarian coordinator, who was accompanying Holmes.

After a two-decade stalemate, the army in recent months has made dramatic gains, containing the rebels in an area along the island's northern coast said to be less than 100 square miles. The Tigers, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have been declared a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

Charu Lata Hogg, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the report was based in part on witness accounts collected by two representatives who have been working secretly in the north because Colombo sharply restricts access to the affected areas. The statistics, she added, were compiled from U.N. and other sources.

"The government has to stop shelling hospitals and areas where civilians are located, and the LTTE has to stop trying to kill people fleeing to safety," Hogg said. "Both need to agree to a civilian corridor that lets people get away."

A Catholic priest who was recently in the northern city of Jaffna, near the fighting, and asked not to be identified citing fears of persecution, said many Tamil civilians feel alienated from a government they believe views them as terrorist sympathizers solely because of their ethnicity.

Government officials deny that Tamils or any other minorities are treated differently from Sinhalese, who account for more than 70% of Sri Lanka's population.

The army has not engaged in indiscriminate firing on civilians, said Rajiva Wijesinha, secretary of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. He dismissed the Human Rights Watch report as "disinformation."

"There's no discrimination on anyone," said Lakshman Hulugalle, director general of the official Media Center for National Security in Colombo. "The general public accepts checkpoints. Everyone cooperates with us because they all like security checks. There are no set of specific questions for Tamils or Sinhalese."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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