- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - The first shipment of medical supplies in two weeks has been sent to the last remaining major health facility in Sri Lanka’s war zone and 500 civilians have been evacuated from danger, the Red Cross said Monday.

The area’s top health official has blamed a lack of medicine and supplies for causing the needless deaths of hundreds of hospital patients caught in the all-out offensive the government has launched against Tamil Tiger rebels in hopes of ending the island’s 25-year-old civil war.

On Sunday, fighting in the shrinking rebel enclave left at least 13 insurgents dead, the military said.

The Red Cross supplies arrived in the war zone on the northeast coast Sunday aboard the “MV Green Ocean,” said Sophie Romanens, a Colombo spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross. She did not know how large the shipment was, but said the ship returned with 500 patients and family members.

The Red Cross and other international groups have voiced concern recently for the civilians trapped in the last remaining rebel territory. The rebel holdouts _ along with tens of thousands of terrified civilians _ are confined to about 11 square miles (28 square kilometers) of jungle and beach on the northeastern coast.

The U.N. says 150,000 to 180,000 civilians are trapped in the war zone. The government says the figure is much lower, and accuses the Tamil rebels of using the people as human shields.

Romanens said there had been an influx of displaced people into the coastal strip near the medical facility and that there was not enough clean water and food for them.

Last week, in a letter to the Health Ministry, officials from two northern Sri Lankan regions hit by the war said just 5 percent of the needed drugs and dressings had been received in the last quarter of 2008 and the first part of this year.

The letter said more than 500 patients had died since January after arriving at hospitals and that thousands more may have died elsewhere in the area.

Besides the 500 evacuated on the Red Cross ship, the military said in a statement that another 845 people, including more than 200 children, crossed over to military-controlled areas on Sunday.

Fighting continued Sunday near the last rebel-held town of Puthkkudiyirippu with army troops killing at least eight guerrillas, the military said in a statement.

It did not provide details of army casualties, but said government soldiers “suffered minor damages.”

Separately, the navy repulsed an attempted Tiger suicide attack, killing five rebels.

It said the rebels were on a boat that had mixed in with three other boats carrying civilians escaping the fighting. One of the rebels opened fire and all were killed when the navy fired back.

Rebel officials could not be reached because most communication to the north has been severed, and accounts of the battles could not be verified because independent journalists are barred from the war zone.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam 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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