Tamil Tiger separatist rebels shot at civilians trying to flee fighting in Sri Lanka’s northern war zone, wounded witnesses said on Thursday after escaping with the help of the Red Cross.
The military says at least 32,000 people have fled the war zone in the Indian Ocean island’s northeast, where troops aim to end a 25-year-old war by dealing a death blow to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels they have cornered there.
On Tuesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ferried out 240 sick and wounded people by boat from the Tiger-held coastal village of Puttumatalan.
Among them was Sister Mary Colostica, a 74-year-old Catholic nun, who told how she and five other nuns shepherded more than 2,000 civilians from village to village as they tried to escape fighting and shelling, searching for what food they could find.
First-hand accounts from the war zone are difficult to get because most civilians who flee are put into military-run camps off-limits to outsiders.
“When we tried to leave, the LTTE didn’t allow civilians to leave and said only we can leave,” she told Reuters from a hospital in Trincomalee, the eastern port where she and the others were taken by the Red Cross.
“So we stayed back with the civilians,” she said. The group kept close to a makeshift field hospital that had to be moved away from the rapidly advancing fighting, until reaching the shores of the Indian Ocean at Puttumatalan.
The ICRC said 16 patients were killed by artillery fire there on Monday. Another boatload of 160 patients sailed from Puttumatalan on Thursday, the ICRC said.
The military said on Thursday it had set up a 12 km (7 mile) long no-fire zone encompassing Puttumatalan and other villages on a narrow strip of coastline, to replace one further inland. It said the LTTE had driven people out of the old one.
Sister Mary, being treated for shrapnel wounds, described the crisis in the north as worse than what she saw after the 2004 tsunami, which killed about 30,000 people on the island.
“At least 10 to 15 people die a day and no one is there to bury them,” she said. “The LTTE fired from close to civilians. We had objected, but that didn’t work.”
The entire war zone has been sealed off to journalists and most aid workers. Humanitarian agencies estimate about 250,000 people are trapped there.
The government says the number is half that, while the United Nations is planning for an exodus of 150,000 people.
Another nun, Sister Louise, said the LTTE fired at people repeatedly when they begged to leave.
“When we tried to escape with civilians, LTTE had fired at me. I got shot in my leg,” she said from her hospital bed.
The rebels have denied accusations from the government, a growing list of countries and rights groups that they have forcibly kept civilians inside the war zone to use as fighters.
The LTTE is on numerous international terrorism lists and has rebuffed repeated international calls to free civilians.
Sri Lanka’s government has refused calls for a ceasefire but pledged to give civilians safe passage. Both sides deny targeting civilians and blame the other for non-combatant deaths.
Another 2,000 people reached army-held areas on Wednesday and at least another 200 had come out by Thursday morning, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
More than 50,000 soldiers are converging on the 175 square km (67 sq miles) pocket still held by the Tigers. Analysts say they have no more than 2,000 hardcore guerrillas left and face defeat.
Nanayakkara said that number had shrunk to about 700.
“It can be increased, because the people are still with them and can be forcibly recruited and trained to fight,” he said.