- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - An international rights group on Friday urged Sri Lanka’s military to stop firing artillery into a designated “no fire” zone, saying civilian casualties were skyrocketing.

The plea came as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon telephoned Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa to discuss the plight of about 100,000 civilians trapped in the zone.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the area has been subjected to heavy shelling since Tuesday.

“Sri Lanka’s so-called ‘no-fire zone’ is now one of the most dangerous places in the world,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, in a statement.

Adams said the artillery barrages were “causing skyrocketing casualties.” A doctor in the region told the group more than 120 people were killed over a three-day period and about 700 were wounded, the statement said.

The pro-rebel TamilNet Web site on Thursday said shelling by the military killed 129 civilians inside the safe zone on Wednesday.

Media Minister Anura Yapa rejected the allegations. “Our forces have not fired into that zone. We don’t want to shell that area. Our aim is to rescue the people from the LTTE,” Yapa told reporters, referring to the rebels’ formal name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The government and aid groups accuse the rebels of using civilians as human shields and have called for their release. The government and Tigers have also been urged to pause military operations so civilians can be moved to safety.

“War crimes by the Tamil Tigers don’t give Sri Lankan commanders free rein to ignore civilian casualties,” said Adams. “Accountability is a two-way street.”

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders on Friday said the government to “must heed the international community’s calls for a cease-fire and for better access for humanitarian workers and journalists.”

“It is a disgrace that this war is being waged without independent journalists present,” the media advocacy group said.

Fighting on the edge of the “no fire” zone Friday killed nine rebels, the military said in a statement. The statement did not mention any government casualties.

The Tigers have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have faced decades of marginalization by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

The U.N. estimates 150,000 to 190,000 people are trapped in northern Sri Lanka, with dozens dying each day. The government says more than 23,000 civilians escaped last month and 30,000 to 40,000 still remain in the zone, which measures 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers).

U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said Ban raised the issue of civilian casualties with Rajapaksa and both agreed, “to continue to work together urgently on ways forward in the coming days.”

A statement from Rajapaksa’s office said the president told Ban, “the suffering of the civilians was due to the LTTE continuing to hold them hostage and as human shields, ignoring the many calls by the U.N. and humanitarian organizations to free them.”

Meanwhile, representatives from the United States, European Union, Norway and Japan held a conference call to discuss the need to protect Sri Lankan civilians.

“They stressed the importance of a humanitarian pause and of ensuring that adequate supplies of food, water and medicine reach” the civilians, said a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka on Friday.

The representatives also called on the Tamil Tigers “to permit freedom of movement” for those trapped, it said.

The “no-fire” zone was declared earlier this year by the government as a place for civilians caught in the fighting to go.

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