COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Two days of shelling across Sri Lanka's northern war zone killed at least 430 ethnic Tamil civilians — and likely as many as 1,000 — a government doctor in the area said Monday. The United Nations branded the attacks a "bloodbath."
With the civilian death toll skyrocketing in the civil war, a coalition of international human rights groups called for the U.N. Security Council to urgently hold talks on the conflict.
A rebel-linked Web site blamed the attacks on the government, while the military accused the beleaguered Tamil Tigers of shelling their own territory to gain international sympathy and force a cease-fire.
The first barrage struck the tiny sliver of northeast coast still held by the rebels Saturday evening and lasted through the night, health officials said.
About 6 p.m. Sunday, a new round of shelling — less intense than the first — pounded a newly demarcated "safe zone" where the government had urged civilians to gather, 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, while 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 were 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."
Volunteers dug mass graves in the marshland near the hospital, putting 50 to 60 bodies in each pit, he said. One of the hospital's nurses was killed along with his family in a trench that was then filled with soil and turned into their grave, he said.
Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government bars journalists and aid workers from the war zone. The attacks marked the bloodiest assault on ethnic Tamil civilians since the civil war flared again more than three years ago.
"The U.N. has consistently warned against the bloodbath scenario as we've watched the steady increase in civilian deaths over the last few months," U.N. 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."
U.N. figures compiled last month showed that nearly 6,500 civilians had been killed in three months of fighting this year as the government drove the rebels out of their strongholds in the north and vowed to end the war.
"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.
About 50,000 civilians are crowded into a 2.4 mile- (4 kilometer) long strip of coast along with the separatists, who have been fighting for 25 years for a homeland for minority Tamils.
The government has brushed off international calls for a humanitarian truce, saying any pause in the fighting would give the rebels time to regroup.
Shanmugarajah said the hospital was so short-staffed that many of those wounded in the first barrage late Saturday had still not been treated Monday morning. "The hospital death rate is increasing, but we are helpless," he said.
People were begging the doctors to send them away on a Red Cross ship that comes every few days to evacuate the wounded, saying they could not bear the shelling anymore.
The rebel-linked TamilNet Web site blamed the attack on Sri Lankan forces. Rights groups have accused them of bombing and shelling the war zone despite pledges to stop using heavy weapons.
The Sri Lankan military denied firing the artillery and said they witnessed rebels firing mortar shells from one corner of the coastal strip into another section heavily populated with civilians for one hour Sunday morning.
"I think the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) is now trying to use these people as their last weapon to show the world that the army is firing indiscriminately and stop this offensive," military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.
Human rights groups have accused the rebels of holding the civilians as human shields and shooting some who tried to flee.