COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s government has expressed regret over the killing of about 65 civilians in an artillery blitz on a rebel-held area, but blamed the Tamil Tigers for using human shields.
Government defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the military had targeted two Tamil Tiger artillery positions in Wednesday’s attack in the eastern district of Batticaloa, but admitted a civilian centre was also hit.
“While we regret this whole episode, we also must say that national security is uppermost in our minds,” Rambukwella said. “Actions by the defence authorities were inevitable.” The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), he said, had been firing mortar and artillery at government positions, as well as civilian settlements, in the region for over a week. “The LTTE is using humans as shields to cover their operations,” Media Minister Anura Yapa said.
The military said that about 1,000 civilians crossed over to government-held areas on Thursday seeking shelter after Wednesday’s attacks. Nordic monitors said rocket had been fired into two school buildings housing a large number of displaced Tamil civilians. Rambukwella said the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) had reported seeing 23 bodies after the incident. He also pledged the government, which had come in for condemnation, would investigate.
“We still believe that these casualties will rise,” Rambukwella said. “Some people may have been injured and are still in jungle areas. We are not trying to cover up anything and there will be an investigation.”
Tamil rebels and medical sources said at least 65 people were killed and about 300 wounded, 130 of them seriously. A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said they evacuated 74 wounded from a hospital in the rebel-held area to a government-controlled area. “We will operate a second convoy of ambulances on Thursday),” the ICRC said.
Truce monitors themselves were caught up in long-range attacks on Wednesday. The SLMM monitors came under attack when they were on their way to inspect a route to the besieged northern peninsula of Jaffna, but there were no casualties.
Peace-broker Norway demanded an immediate explanation from the Sri Lankan government for the grenade attack.