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Sri Lankan shells kill 378 civilians

AN overnight artillery barrage in Sri Lanka's northern war zone killed at least 378 civilians and wounded more than 1,100, a government doctor said yesterday, calling it the bloodiest day he had seen in the army's offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Dr V. Shanmugarajah said many more were likely killed in the attack, but they were buried where they fell instead of being brought to the makeshift hospital where he works in the war zone. He described the situation at the understaffed hospital as "overwhelming."

The rebel-linked TamilNet Website said 2,000 civilians were feared killed and blamed the attack on Sri Lankan forces - a charge the military denied.

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said government forces were only using small arms in their effort to wipe out the Tamil Tigers. "There is no shelling taking place," he said.

Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government bars journalists and aid workers from the war zone.

The government vowed two weeks ago to cease firing heavy weapons to avoid civilian casualties.

However, medical officials in the area have reported that air strikes and artillery attacks have continued unabated, despite the presence of an estimated 50,000 ethnic Tamil civilians in the conflict zone.

Shanmugarajah described seeing shells fly through the air, with some falling close to the hospital, sending many diving into bunkers for safety.

The government had sent medical supplies into the war zone in the past days, but a shortage of physicians, nurses and aides has made treatment difficult, he said.

"We are doing the first aid and some surgeries as quickly as we can. We are doing what is possible. The situation is overwhelming; nothing is within our control," he said.

Shanmugarajah also said he sought the help of volunteers to dig graves for the bodies brought to the hospital.

Human Rights Watch on Saturday accused the military of repeatedly hitting hospitals in the war zone with artillery and aerial attacks that killed scores of people and said commanders involved in the attacks "may be prosecuted for war crimes."

United Nations figures compiled last month showed that nearly 6,500 civilians had been killed early this year as the government renewed its efforts to end the war.


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