- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Doctors and aides abandoned the only hospital in Sri Lanka’s war zone amid unrelenting shell attacks, a health official said Thursday, as thousands of civilians braved rebel gunfire and fled across the front lines, according to the military.

The medical staff was huddling in a nearby bunker because of the nonstop shelling, and could hear the cries of hundreds of patients unable to leave the hospital begging for food and water, according to a health official in the war zone.

The Red Cross said the tiny strip of coastal land still controlled by the rebels was wracked by violence, despite appeals from President Barack Obama and the U.N. for the two sides to end the civil war and let the estimated 50,000 civilians trapped in the area escape.

Though the number of wounded was rapidly increasing, the medical staff fled the makeshift hospital in the region after it was shelled twice this week in attacks that killed about 100 people, the health official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. Other attacks last weekend killed about 1,000 people in the tiny conflict zone.

About 400 badly wounded patients remained in the facility Thursday in desperate need of treatment, along with more than 100 bodies waiting to be buried, the official said. Many other wounded civilians fled after the second shell attack hit the hospital Wednesday, he said.

As the military pressed ahead with its offensive, 2,400 civilians waded across a vast lagoon that serves as a barrier between government and rebel forces under a hail of rebel gunfire to escape the area, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.

Most of the civilians managed to escape, though four were killed and 14 others wounded, he said. Another 2,000 civilians were on the far shore, still waiting to cross the lagoon, he said.

The rebels have denied accusations they were holding the civilians as human shields and shooting at those trying to flee.

The government has cornered the Tamil Tigers on the strip of land — bordered by the sea on one side and a vast lagoon on the other — and vowed to end the 25-year-old civil war.

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