Suspected Tamil Tiger rebels lobbed a grenade and opened fire at a bus transporting civilians out of Sri Lanka’s war zone Saturday, killing one woman and wounding 13, the defence ministry said.
The rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked the bus at Puliyankulam in the island’s north while it headed to the government-held town of Vavuniya, the ministry said.
It said four women and two girls were among those shot by the gunmen in the pre-dawn attack.
Airforce fighter jets kept up attacks on rebel positions Saturday and bombed the northern beach strip of Mullaittivu where suspected guerrilla boats were anchored, the military said.
The bombings come as artillery shells Friday killed four residents of a home for the elderly inside a demarcated safe area within Sri Lanka’s war zone, a doctor said Saturday.
Many elderly people were also injured in the shelling in the northeast coastal area of Puttumattalan, said T. Satyamurthy, a doctor working out of the makeshift community centre hospital.
He said hundreds of civilians were being treated in the hospital, which was running out of drugs and lacked clean toilets and clean water.
Security forces and police were also deployed Saturday at a local election for two provincial councils in the central and north-western parts of the country, officials said.
The government of President Mahinda Rajapakse turned the election into a referendum on its handling of the battle against Tamil Tiger rebels. Police said the vote went through peacefully and results are expected Sunday.
This week, the Red Cross evacuated more than 600 patients and family members from Puttumattalan by sea to the northeastern coastal town of Trincomalee.
Satyamurthy said another 600 badly wounded people needed to be evacuated for further treatment.
More than 200 patients suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and kidney problems were also in need of urgent evacuation.
The government accuses the LTTE of using some 100,000 Tamil civilians as a human shield after military forces cornered the guerrillas in a narrow strip of jungle in the island’s north-east.
However, official figures showed 37,420 people had crossed the front lines this year, with nearly 35,000 making the hazardous journey this month alone to seek shelter with security forces.
The Red Cross says hundreds of non-combatants have already been killed.
The government, which says it is on the brink of crushing the rebels, has resisted international calls to halt its offensive against the Tigers, who have fought since 1972 for the creation of an independent Tamil homeland.
On Thursday, Sri Lanka set up a new safe zone for non-combatants along a 12-kilometre (7.5-mile) stretch of coastline, effectively scrapping a smaller designated no-fire area.
Sri Lanka has resisted calls for a “no-fire period,” amid claims from relief agencies that a “humanitarian catastrophe” was unfolding in the island’s war zone.
Foreign governments as well as rights groups have asked Tamil Tigers to allow civilians free movement.
Sri Lanka military says rebels attack refugee bus
A suspected Tamil Tiger rebel hurled a hand grenade at a bus full of war-displaced refugees Saturday, killing a woman and wounding 13 others, the military said.
The bus was attacked in Puliyankulam village in the north while transporting people who had fled the embattled region for government territory, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.
Rebel officials could not be contacted for comment. The military’s claim could not be independently verified because independent journalists are barred from the war zone.
A 59-year-old woman was killed and the wounded included four children, Nanayakkara said.
The government has accused the Tigers — who have recently lost their main strongholds to government forces and are cornered in a small sliver of coastal land — of holding scores of people as human shields and killing civilians who want to escape. The rebels have denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, air force jets bombed an area where rebel boats were concealed, the military said without elaborating.
The Red Cross said it is negotiating with the government and rebels to allow the sick and wounded in the war zone to travel to hospitals in government territory.
International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne said wounded civilians continue to flock to a makeshift hospital in rebel-held Putumattalan village, which is overwhelmed despite moving 640 patients and their relatives from the facility earlier this week.
Thurairajah Varatharajah, a doctor at the hospital, said 300 more wounded patients have arrived at the hospital since the evacuations, and there are about 100 more patients suffering from various other diseases.
Varatharajah had said Friday that about 40 people are being killed every day and scores wounded while the makeshift hospital is struggling with a shortage of medicines.
The government denies there are drug shortages or that it has targeted civilians.
In Geneva, a 26-year-old Sri Lankan died after setting himself on fire Thursday outside the U.N. complex in apparent protest against the military campaign, police said Saturday.
A five-page letter found near his body identified the man as a Tamil who had been living in Britain, police spokesman Eric Grandjean said in Switzerland.
“I believe the flames over my body, heart and soul will help the world community to have a deep human look over the great sufferings of the Sri Lankan Tamils,” the man wrote in English and Tamil, according to the pro-rebel TamilNet Web site, which said it had obtained copies of his letters.
The Sri Lankan military says it is close to crushing the rebels and ending their 25-year campaign for an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils. Tamils, who make up 18 percent of the country’s population, have been marginalized by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese.
More than 70,000 have been killed in 25 years of violence.