- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - A lack of medical supplies has led to the needless deaths of hundreds of hospital patients in parts of northern Sri Lanka ravaged by civil war, the regions’ top health officials said.

The international Red Cross said conditions for civilians were “deteriorating by the day,” and the U.N. Children’s Fund said thousands of children were at risk because of “a critical lack of food, water and medicines.”

In a letter to the Health Ministry, officials from two northern Sri Lankan regions said just 5 percent of the needed drugs and dressings were received in the last quarter of 2008 and the first part of this year.

The letter, seen Tuesday by The Associated Press, was signed by the health officers of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. Kilinochchi was the headquarters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam until it was overrun by government troops in early January.

The last remaining remnants of the rebels are fighting in Mullaitivu to hold on to a shrinking swath of land _ estimated at 13.5 square miles (35 square kilometers) _ on the northeast coast.

The letter said more than 500 patients died since January after arriving at hospitals and that thousands of others may have died outside of hospitals.

“Most of the hospital deaths could have been prevented if basic infrastructure facilities and essential medicines were made available,” it said.

On Tuesday, a further 23 patients died out of 108 wounded civilians taken to a makeshift hospital in the northeast, said Kandasamy Tharmakulasingham, a hospital administrative officer.

Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said any letter coming out of the rebel territory is “suspicious and subject to verification.” He declined further response until he could consult senior health officials.

The U.N. says 150,000 to 180,000 civilians, displaced from Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, are trapped in the war zone. The government says the figure is much lower, and on Tuesday the Sri Lankan president told the U.N. chief Tamil rebels are holding the civilians by force.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a phone conversation with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, asked about food, medicine and essential supplies in the country’s northern war zone, as well as civilians’ safety and facilities for displaced people, the president’s office said.

Rajapaksa said the military has been instructed not to fire heavy weapons at civlian areas and that the government regularly sends food to the battle zones, the statement added.

The U.N. Children’s Fund said hundreds of children have been killed as a result of the conflict.

“Thousands are now at risk because of a critical lack of food, water and medicines,” agency executive director Ann M. Veneman said in a statement. “Regular, safe access for humanitarian agencies is urgently required, so that lifesaving supplies can be provided.”

In Geneva, Simon Schorno, a spokeman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said there has been shelling of a coastal area designated as a “safe zone” for the largely Tamil civilian population.

U.N. estimates 2,800 civilians have died since late January; the government says that figure is unsubstantiated.

The government has rejected numerous appeals _ the latest from the European Union _ for an immediate cease-fire, saying any deal would allow the besieged rebels to regroup.

The Tamil Tigers have began fighting since 1983 for an independent state for the Tamil minority, which suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

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