COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Shells hit the only hospital in Sri Lanka’s northern war zone Wednesday, killing at least 50 people in the second such attack in two days, a doctor said. Medics at the makeshift facility said they were using brief lulls between explosions to tend to patients but had little to offer beyond gauze and bandages.
It was the third attack this month on the hospital and comes on the heels of shelling this past weekend that killed as many as 1,000 civilians. On Tuesday, shells struck the admissions ward, killing 49. But trapped in the tiny coastal strip as the government presses ahead with its offensive against the rebels, the wounded had little alternative but to converge by the hundreds to seek treatment.
Scores of people crowded beneath tarps outside the hospital building waiting for care as a person wailed in grief in the background, according to a video footage.
The military has denied firing any heavy weapons in recent weeks, but Human Rights Watch says both sides are using the estimated 50,000 civilians packed into the last rebel-held territory as “cannon fodder.” The Red Cross said one of its workers was killed in shelling Wednesday.
The Tamil Tigers are cornered in a two square-mile (five square-kilometer) pocket of land. The military said it pressed ahead with its offensive into that strip Wednesday, capturing one of the rebels’ heavy guns and fending off a suicide attack launched by the group’s naval wing.
On Wednesday afternoon, the area around the hospital came under heavy shell attack, Dr. V. Shanmugarajah told The Associated Press by telephone — the third time it has come under fire this month and just one day after the last attack. One shell landed in an administrative office of the hospital, while another hit a ward filled with patients already wounded by previous shelling, he said.
Dr. Thurairaja Varatharajah, the top health official in the war zone, said the attack killed at least 50 people, including patients, relatives and a health aide, and wounded about 60 others.
He said heavy shelling continued throughout the day.
“We are unable to treat the people properly because a lot of aides have fled the hospital. We go into bunkers when there is shelling and try to treat them as much as we can when there is a lull,” he said by telephone.
More than 1,000 civilians — many with amputations or chest wounds — were waiting for treatment at the hospital when it was struck, and every 10 minutes or so another one or two died, according to a third hospital official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by the government to speak to the media.
Overwhelmed doctors have been reduced to handing out gauze and bandages to the seriously wounded, the official said. More than 100 dead bodies have been left inside the compound because no one will risk burying them amid the constant shelling, he said.
Rebel spokesman Seevaratnam Puleedevan said shells also hit a home for mentally handicapped women, killing 38 and wounding more than 40. The health officials said they were not able to confirm that attack.
Shelling also killed Red Cross worker Mayuran Sivagurunathan and his mother and prevented a Red Cross ferry off the coast from delivering food aid and evacuating the wounded, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The aid group said it was not sure if its employee was killed in the hospital attack.
“There are many shells falling. I don’t know if it was the same attack,” Red Cross spokesman Marcel Izard said.
Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government has barred journalists and aid workers from the war zone.
The government has come under heavy international criticism for the large civilian toll of its offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called the conflict zone “as close to hell as you can get,” and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined him in expressing alarm at the civilian casualties.
Human Rights Watch said witness testimony and satellite images of the area taken Sunday and analyzed by experts “contradict Sri Lankan government claims that its armed forces are no longer using heavy weapons” in the war zone.
The group also accused the rebels of using the civilians as human shields and shooting those who try to escape.
“Neither the Sri Lankan army nor the Tamil Tigers appear to have any reluctance in using civilians as cannon fodder,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science analyzed satellite photos of the area taken Sunday morning — after a night of heavy shelling was reported in the area — and compared it to an image taken four days before. The report was done at the request of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
“By comparing before-and-after satellite images, we were able to see a significant movement of the region’s human population, suggesting widespread displacement. We also saw destroyed structures and circular, crater-like features consistent with widespread shelling,” said Lars Bromley, director of the association’s Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project.
One area, which had been densely packed with tents and other structures in the earlier photo was nearly empty Sunday morning. Another photo provided by Amnesty showed two white circles near a cluster of trees that were identified as impact craters.
While Bromley said the images did not show who was behind the destruction, Human Rights Watch said a health official in the area had told them the artillery was being fired from an area under government control.
Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara denied troops were responsible for any shelling, saying the war zone had grown too small for the use of such weapons. He said exploding booby traps set by the rebels could account for the craters and the reports of shelling.