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(New York) - The Sri Lankan army, despite government denials, is indiscriminately shelling the "no-fire zone" in northern Sri Lanka where thousands of civilians are trapped by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Human Rights Watch said today, citing new information from the region. More than 2,700 civilians have reportedly been killed over the last two months, and the number of casualties rises daily. 

"We receive reports of civilians being killed and wounded daily in the ‘no-fire zone, while the Sri Lankan government continues to deny the attacks," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The Tamil Tigers' use of civilians as human shields adds to the bloodshed."

A doctor at the makeshift hospital in Putumattalan, inside the government-declared "no-fire zone," told Human Rights Watch over the phone early today that dozens of  dead and wounded  civilians were being brought to the hospital daily. The interview was interrupted by shelling, audible over the phone; the doctor later explained that an artillery shell had struck approximately 250 meters from the hospital, killing two civilians and wounding seven others. Another shell struck about a kilometer from the hospital, also killing and wounding civilians. (View a map, including the affected areas).

When Human Rights Watch spoke to the doctor at about 5 p.m., he said the hospital had received 14 bodies and 98 wounded that day. He told Human Rights Watch that the shelling appeared to come from the direction of government positions three kilometers to the west.

The doctor described another artillery attack inside the no-fire zone on March 21, 2009:

"Between 10 and 11 a.m. on March 21, a shell hit a shelter about 200 meters from a church in Valayanmadam [three kilometers south of Putumattalan]. When I went to the site in the evening, two bodies were still lying at the site, while three bodies had already been buried. Nine people had been injured." 

The Sri Lankan government continues its official denials of any attacks in the no-fire zone, including in discussions with top international officials. For example, in his phone conversation with the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, on March 17, President Mahinda Rajapaksa claimed that "no firing whatever was being carried out on the No Fire or Safe Zones declared by the security forces." (For more information, please visit: ).

Collecting accurate information from the conflict zone is extremely difficult, as the government continues to block access for media and independent observers.

Civilian casualties in the 25-year-old armed conflict with the LTTE have skyrocketed since January. According to a UN document reprinted in the media, the UN country team in Sri Lanka has documented 2,683 civilian deaths and 7,241 injuries in the six weeks from January 20 to March 7 ( ). A copy of the patient list from the makeshift hospital in Putumattalan on file with Human Rights Watch contains the names of 978 people brought to the hospital from March 1 to March 10. According to the list, 79 adults and 40 children died, while 646 adults and 213 children were injured.

Human Rights Watch said that the LTTE continued to prevent 150,000 Tamil civilians from leaving the conflict zone and effectively used them as human shields. During the last two months LTTE only permitted about 4,000 injured civilians and their caretakers to be evacuated by ferryboat by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

In one incident reported to Human Rights Watch, a local employee of an international aid agency was wounded and several of his family members killed  by a shell that hit a shelter in Putumattalan on March 21. According to information that the aid agency received from its staff on the ground, the employee sustained serious head wounds and his situation is considered critical unless he receives medical treatment. Despite several days of negotiation, however, the LTTE has refused to allow the ICRC to evacuate the man. 

On March 17, another aid volunteer was wounded as a result of shelling in the no-fire zone. He did not get needed medical attention and died. (For more information, please visit: ).

The situation of the civilians trapped in the conflict zone is aggravated by the acute shortage of food, sanitary facilities, and medication, as international humanitarian agencies cannot deliver sufficient supplies to the conflict area.

A volunteer at the hospital today told Human Rights Watch: "It is really difficult for people to find food, and you can see that over the last four weeks people have lost weight and they get sick because of lack of nutritious food, [lack of adequate] bathing and toilet facilities, as well as lack of medicines in the hospital. We are in a very, very desperate situation. People are suffering."

Top UN officials, including the secretary-general, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, and the high commissioner for human rights, as well as a number of concerned states, have called on the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to make protecting civilians a top priority and to take all necessary measures to halt the spiraling humanitarian disaster.

"The Sri Lankan government has responded to broad international concerns with indignation and denials instead of action to address the humanitarian crisis," said Adams.   

Human Rights Watch called on the UN Security Council to put Sri Lanka on its agenda and to address urgently the deteriorating situation. It also called on Sri Lanka's key bilateral partners, such as Japan, the United States and India, to make the safety of the trapped civilians a top priority in any discussions of financial assistance.

Last week, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to members of the board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about the government's request for a US$1.9 billion loan to address its financial crisis and, according to the Sri Lankan Central Bank's request, to "continue with the resettlement, rehabilitation and reconstruction work in the Northern Province." It has asked the IMF to finalize negotiations on the loan by March 31.

In its letter, Human Rights Watch emphasized that the government's current policies and practices are counterproductive to the stated goal of the IMF loan and urged that IMF board members discuss concrete action the government  needs to take  to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the north.

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