- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka | An international rights group 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,” Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, said in a statement.

Mr. Adams said the artillery barrages were “causing skyrocketing casualties.” A doctor in the region told the group that 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,” Mr. 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 also have been urged to pause military operations so civilians can be moved to safety.

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

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 that 30,000 to 40,000 still remain in the zone, which measures 7.7 square miles.

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

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.

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