Packed Sri Lanka Hospital Shelled

Alex Crawford in Colombo

An overcrowded hospital in Sri Lanka’s battle zone – where many patients have been killed in the past day – has been shelled again, the United Nations tells Sky News.

A Sri Lankan soldier in Mullaittivu

Aid agencies have condemned the attacks which in one case hit a paediatric unit in the last functioning medical facility in the war-torn area.

Three artillery shells hit the hospital on Sunday, and at least two more hit the unit on Monday.

Staff working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who are in the hospital say at least 12 people have been killed and many more wounded.

The four-year-old daughter of one of the UN members of staff was among those hurt by the shelling.

One text message from a UN worker in the hospital said: “Women and kids wards shelled. God, no words. Still counting the dead bodies.”

The hospital was already full of 500 wounded patients with more injured continuing to arrive.

The agencies declined to say which side had mounted the attack but the hospital is in Puthukkudiyiruppu in the Vanni area.

The zone is still controlled by rebels but the Sri Lankan military is bombarding it to try and flush out the remaining Tamil Tigers.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defence secretary, told Sky News the hospital is not within the unilaterally declared ‘no-fire zone’ set up by the government and is therefore a legitimate target.

He urged all civilians including aid workers to go to the no-fire zones or risk coming under fire.

Sri Lankan Defence Secretary on shelling

The government has insisted in the past that the rebels themselves are firing on them to try to swing worldwide public opinion against the Sri Lankan authorities and halt the offensive.

It is impossible to independently verify any of the claims because the government bars journalists from travelling to the battle zone outside strictly-controlled guided tours of areas already captured by the Sri Lankan military.

Mr Rajapaksa, who is also the president’s brother, caused some consternation when he was quoted in a Sunday newspaper threatening to expel foreign journalists, aid agencies and diplomats who appeared to be sympathetic to the rebels by, for instance, showing images of injured civilians.

He was quoted as saying: “They will be chased away if they try to give a second wind to the (rebel) LTTE at a time the security forces, at heavy cost are dealing them the final death blow.”

He was reported in the Sunday Island newspaper as criticising foreign journalists for sensationalising civilian deaths and “acting irresponsibly” and spoke of the dire consequences if they continued to do so.

Sky News was one of a small group of journalists invited on a military trip to the north.

We were taken to Jaffna – an area where outsiders have not been able to get to for nearly a year.

The authorities wanted to show us how public opinion in the country is turning.

We were shown a crowd of between 15-20,000 who were demonstrating against the Tamil Tigers and appealing to them to allow the safe passage of civilians out of the battle zone.

We were told the people in this area were sick of the war and wanted the LTTE driven out.

One man told Sky News: “We are sick of fighting. That is all the LTTE want to do. We want to be rid of them.”

The Sri Lankan military is taking heavy casualties.

Five wounded soldiers were loaded onto the same military plane as the journalists as we were flown out of the area. We were asked not to film them.

But there is very much a feeling within the government that they are nearing the end and this is the final push in a conflict which is Asia’s longest and has ravaged the country for nearly three decades.

The president has called on the LTTE to surrender or risk being captured by the army and warned the rebels there was now no chance of them winning.

The military operations, he said, were “irreversible and irrevocable”.

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