COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — Civilians waded across a lagoon under a hail of rebel gunfire Thursday, breaking out of Sri Lanka's war zone in a mass exodus that left four of them dead, the military said.
In the tiny northeastern coastal strip, unrelenting shelling forced health workers to abandon the only hospital in the area, leaving hundreds of wounded patients begging for food and water, according to a health official in the war zone.
The Red Cross said the situation was "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe."
The government, which denies shelling the area, has cornered the Tamil Tigers on a spit squeezed between the sea and a lagoon and vows to finish off the rebels after 25 years of civil war. The rebels, who are demanding a homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority, once controlled a shadow state across the north.
As the military pressed ahead with its offensive, 2,700 civilians braved rebel gunfire and waded across the lagoon into government-controlled territory, Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said. About 2,000 civilians were waiting on the far shore to escape, he said. In addition to the dead, 14 people were wounded, he said.
The rebels have denied holding the civilians as human shields or shooting at those fleeing. Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government has barred journalists and most aid workers from the conflict zone.
The U.N. said last month that nearly 6,500 civilians were killed in three months of fighting this year.