COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – The last hospital in Sri Lanka’s shrinking war zone was evacuated Wednesday as Red Cross staff and wounded civilians fled attacks that apparently included cluster munitions.
Hundreds of wounded civilians had sought refuge in the overcrowded facility, some with amputated limbs, many huddling on mats under already full beds during days of artillery shelling.
The UN’s claim that cluster munitions were fired was the first public accusation of the controversial weapon being used in Asia’s longest-running civil war since a ceasefire broke down three years ago.
Cluster bombs can damage wide areas, and many of their bomblets fail to explode immediately, endangering civilians long after fighting ends.
The number of civilians killed in the offensive to crush the Tamil Tiger separatist group continued to rise, with the UN saying at least 52 were killed in one area of the war zone Tuesday.
The U.S. and Britain called for a temporary ceasefire so an estimated 250,000 trapped civilians could safely escape, and called for aid groups to be allowed back into the war zone. The Sri Lankan government barred most of aid groups from the area last year.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon also added Canada’s voice to the call for a ceasefire on Wednesday, saying it was needed for “the delivery of much-needed humanitarian assistance to civilians.”
And Canada “strongly condemns recent shelling attacks on the hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu and firing into the government-designated safe area,” Cannon said. “All efforts must be made to avoid civilian casualties.”
He said Ottawa believes that the conflict can only be resolved “through a durable political solution that meets the legitimate aspirations of all the people of Sri Lanka.”
The fighting occurred as Sri Lanka marked its 61st Independence Day with a grand military parade, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that the military stood on the verge of crushing the rebels and ending the war.
The fighting is concentrated in a sliver of land of about 85 square kilometres along the northeast coast of this island country off the tip of India.
After a months-long military push into the northern jungles and towns, the rebels appear on the verge of defeat after a 25-year war for a separate homeland for the country’s minority Tamils. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.
After days of artillery barrages that killed at least 12 people at the Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital, the Red Cross said it evacuated the staff and wounded. The Red Cross is one of the few aid groups allowed in the war zone.
“The last remaining medical facility inside the Vanni pocket (war zone) has been effectively closed,” UN spokesman Gordon Weiss said.
He told The Associated Press that 15 local UN staffers and 81 family members who were trapped near the hospital fled Wednesday after the area was pounded for more than 16 hours by artillery fire, including cluster munitions.
The Tamil Tigers tried to take UN vehicles during the evacuation but backed off when the staff resisted, Weiss said.
The Tamil Tigers were not available for comment because most communication to the war zone has been cut.
Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara denied firing cluster bombs, saying “we don’t have the facility to fire cluster munitions. We don’t have these weapons.”
Weiss, without explanation, said the UN accepted the government’s assurance that they did not have the weapons.
Weiss said the hospital area was also hit over the past day by air strikes, likely launched by the government because the Tamil Tigers have no air capability.
He said 52 civilians were killed and 80 wounded in fighting Tuesday inside and outside a government-designated safe zone, an area of rebel territory that it had pledged not to strike.
Dr. Thurairajah Varatharajah, the top health official in the war zone, estimated last week that more than 300 civilians had been killed in recent fighting, something the government denied. Varatharajah has not updated his estimate.
As the fighting seemed to near its end, Sri Lanka held a lavish parade to mark its independence from Britain 61 years ago.
Addressing the gathering, Rajapaksa said government troops had defeated the “cowardly forces of terror that had wrapped our entire nation in fear,” despite the sophisticated Tamil Tiger military machine and its suicide squad.
The rebels complain that ethnic Tamils have suffered years of marginalization at the hands of successive governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority.
More than 4,000 people in Germany protested Sri Lanka’s offensive Wednesday, chanting slogans like “stop the genocide” while marching through downtown Berlin. They appealed to the German government to bring pressure on Sri Lanka to end the fighting.
-With files from The Canadian Press