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UN decries latest barrage in Sri Lanka as 'bloodbath'

Doctor says death toll could be as high as 1,000 after Sunday attack

Last Updated: Monday, May 11, 2009 | 1:10 PM ET

Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils wait outside a makeshift hospital in Tiger-controlled Mullivaaykaal on Sunday. An all-night artillery barrage in Sri Lanka's war zone killed at least 378 civilians and forced thousands to flee to makeshift shelters along the beach, a government doctor said Sunday.Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils wait outside a makeshift hospital in Tiger-controlled Mullivaaykaal on Sunday. An all-night artillery barrage in Sri Lanka's war zone killed at least 378 civilians and forced thousands to flee to makeshift shelters along the beach, a government doctor said Sunday. (Associated Press)

The international community expressed concern on Monday for mounting civilian casualties in Sri Lanka's northern war zone after a government doctor in the area said two days of artillery barrages killed at least 430 civilians.

The United Nations called the artillery barrages a "bloodbath" that killed more than 100 children, and a coalition of international human rights groups called for the UN Security Council to hold formal talks on the recent escalation of Sri Lanka's 25-year civil war.

"The UN has consistently warned against the bloodbath scenario as we've watched the steady increase in civilian deaths over the last few months," UN spokesman Gordon Weiss said Monday.

"The large-scale killing of civilians over the weekend, including the deaths of more than 100 children, shows that that bloodbath has become a reality."

Meanwhile, the United States expressed deep concern with the "unacceptably high" level of civilian casualties in Sri Lanka and called on both the government and the Tamil Tigers to prevent civilian deaths, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department said Monday.

Speaking for the Canadian government on Monday, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda again called upon the country's military and rebels to commit a ceasefire that would allow civilians to escape the war zone.

Oda told CBC News that Canada continues to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to enable access for humanitarian workers and journalists into the area to help get a clearer picture of what is going on.

"We don't have firm information as to exactly who's using what means," said Oda, who met last week with Sri Lanka's foreign minister in Colombo.

"They’ve narrowed the area in which the terrorists are occupied, and our concerns primarily are for the innocent civilians who are trapped behind those lines, and also for those who are escaping that zone to ensure that they’re getting the help that they need."

More than 1,300 wounded in shelling: doctor

The initial artillery attack, which lasted from Saturday evening into Sunday morning, killed at least 378 civilians and wounded more than a thousand more, according to a health official inside rebel-controlled territory.

A rebel-linked website blamed the attack on the government, while the military accused the beleaguered Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam of briefly shelling their own territory to gain international sympathy and force a ceasefire.

About 6 p.m. Sunday, a new round of shelling — less intense than the first — pounded the area, according to Dr. V. Shanmugarajah, who works at a makeshift hospital in the war zone.

A total of 393 people were either brought to the hospital for burial or died at the facility Sunday, he said. Another 37 bodies were brought in Monday morning, he said. More than 1,300 wounded civilians came to the hospital as well, he said.

However, the death toll was likely far higher, he said. Many of the dead are being buried in the bunkers where they had taken refuge and then were killed, and many of the wounded never made it to the hospital for treatment, he said.

"There were many who died without medical attention," Shanmugarajah said. "Seeing the number of wounded and from what the people tell me, I estimate the death toll to be around 1,000."

Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government bars journalists and aid workers from the war zone, but the UN confirmed a heavy toll from the first attack over the weekend.

Tamil Tigers 'part of' Toronto protests: Oda

That attack marked the bloodiest assault on ethnic Tamil civilians since the civil war flared again more than three years ago. Health officials said a hospital in the war zone was overwhelmed by casualties, and the death toll was expected to sharply rise.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights groups called on Japan, the largest international donor to Sri Lanka, to press the UN to urgently discuss the conflict here.

"Formal meetings of the Security Council must be held urgently so that the council can take the necessary measures to address the humanitarian and human rights crisis," the groups said in a letter to Japan's prime minister.

As reports of casualties stream out of the embattled country, Tamils around the world have held large demonstrations to protest the violence in recent weeks.

Most recently, protesters in Toronto shut down a major highway for six hours Sunday evening. They called for Canada to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on Sri Lanka, and left the highway early Monday after being told that Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff would bring up their concerns in caucus.

Oda said she noticed in media coverage of the Toronto protests the prevalence of Tamil Tiger flags, which she said shows Canadians the banned organization was "part of the demonstrations."

"As far as disturbing the traffic and ordinary Canadians' movement around their cities, that we entrust to the municipal and the local law enforcement officials," she said.

About 500 Tamil protesters in Britain, meanwhile, blocked traffic outside parliament in London on Monday, bringing roads in the area to a standstill.

The Tamil Tigers were banned in Canada as a terrorist group in 2006 for their use of child soldiers and suicide bombers during the civil war, which has killed an estimated 70,000 people.

Corrections and Clarifications

  • We initially reported that 700,000 people have died in the conflict in Sri Lanka. In fact, the number is estimated at 70,000. May 11, 2009|5:18 ET
  •  
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