- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka

A government health official said Wednesday that witnesses reported 250 to 300 civilians were killed in fighting over the past week in northern Sri Lanka and said hospital records showed that more than 1,100 were wounded.

The report came as the government pledged to refrain from launching attacks inside a civilian refuge area set up in the war zone. Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said no civilians had been killed in the fighting, though some forced to build fortifications by the rebels - known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - might have been wounded in the crossfire.

“There were no civilians killed,” he said. “We are targeting the LTTE. We are not targeting any civilians, so there can’t be any civilians killed.”

Concerns have grown over the safety of civilians trapped inside rebel-held territory amid a government offensive aimed at crushing the Tamil Tigers. The Red Cross estimates 250,000 civilians have fled to the jungle, where fighting is taking place.

Dr. Thurairajah Varatharajah, the top government health official in Mullaittivu district, said by telephone tht at least 1,140 civilians - 248 younger than 15 - were wounded in the fighting and brought to three hospitals in the district.

The number killed was difficult to count because many civilians had stopped bringing dead relatives to the hospital amid the heavy fighting, he said.

“In my opinion, there are a lot of deaths. More than 250 to 300,” he said, adding that his estimate was based on reports from residents who came to the hospitals from the war zone.

Earlier, a letter in Dr. Varatharajah’s name with similar estimates was sent to the Associated Press by another government health official, who provided accurate information in the past. Dr. Varatharajah said he had not written the earlier letter.

The United Nations said dozens of its workers and their relatives came under artillery fire they thought was from government troops as they sought refuge inside the government-declared “safe zone” for ethnic-Tamil civilians over the weekend.

The military denied firing into the area during its offensive to root the rebels out of the northeast.

Amid reports of rising casualties, Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee rushed to Sri Lanka on Tuesday night to meet with top officials, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The conflict is of special concern to India, home to some 56 million Tamils.

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