Dozens of civilians trapped in Tamil Tiger territory in northeast Sri Lanka have been reported killed in shelling, as both sides in the war faced renewed allegations of war crimes.
A doctor working at a makeshift hospital at Mullivaikal, inside the tiny strip of territory still held by the rebels, said three shells slammed into the facility on Wednesday, leaving at least 52 dead and 60 others wounded.
Two hospital employees were among those killed, Doctor T. Varatharajah said.
News of the alleged attacks comes as the UN Security Council urged the warring sides in the conflict to ensure the safety of civilians, voicing "grave concern" at the "worsening humanitarian crisis" there.
The international body unanimously adopted a non-binding statement that expressed "grave concern over the worsening humanitarian crisis in northeast Sri Lanka, in particular the reports of hundreds of civilian casualties in recent days."
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only neutral organisation present in the area, also said one of its local employees and his mother also died in shellfire but did not say who it believed was responsible.
|This undated handout picture released by pro-LTTE Tamilnet.com shows what it claims are Tamils mourning next to the bodies of civilians killed inside rebel-held territory allegedly by Sri Lankan shelling in the northern Sri Lankan district of Mullaittivu on May 11, 2009.|
The rebels blamed advancing government forces for the bombardment, which came the day after 47 civilians died in a similar raid, the doctor said, and in the wake of weekend attacks that the United Nations described as a "bloodbath."
"The injured people are now being treated under trees and by the roadside," Tiger spokesman S. Puleethevan said by telephone.
But the island's government, which says it has the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) surrounded in just four square kilometres (1.5 square miles) of northeastern coastal jungle, said only the rebels were killing civilians.
"We are not using heavy weapons," a government spokesman said. "It is part of the LTTE's propaganda to talk about army shelling and civilian casualties. They themselves have been attacking civilians to blame us."
Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara also said LTTE fighters were continuing a fight to the death -- with the rebels mounting a ferocious counter-attack earlier in the day and at least 10 guerrillas dying in a wave of suicide boat strikes.
"We have successfully repulsed their counter-attacks," Nanayakkara said.
The Colombo government estimates up to 20,000 civilians are being held in the pocket where the LTTE are holed up, although the United Nations has said as many as 50,000 may be trapped -- huddled in shallow bunkers and with scant food, water or medical facilities.
Amnesty International said it had written to the UN Security Council to demand urgent action as well as a probe into "the mounting evidence of serious violations of international law."
"The Council must convene without any further delay to discuss the latest disturbing developments and immediately require that attacks on civilians by the Sri Lankan army or the LTTE be stopped," Amnesty said.
The European Union has also called for the issue to taken up by the Security Council, but some powerful members, notably China and Russia, are opposed.
The Security Council later issued a statement expressing its "grave concern" over the fighting in northeastern Sri Lanka.
After closed-door consultations on the issue, Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin read a non-binding statement which said that the 15 members "express grave concern over the worsening humanitarian crisis in northeast Sri Lanka, in particular the reports of hundreds of civilian casualties in recent days."
UN humanitarian coordinator John Holmes said the situation was "absolutely awful," with the Tigers "holding onto that population against their will, using them as human shields."
"The government has said they are not using heavy weapons. But the evidence suggests that they are continuing to do so."
The UN's human rights chief Navi Pillay has already said both sides may be guilty of war crimes.
In Washington, US President Barack Obama urged Sri Lanka to stop the "indiscriminate shelling" of civilians and the Tamil Tiger rebels to lay down their arms, warning of a humanitarian "catastrophe" otherwise.
"Without urgent action, this humanitarian crisis could turn into a catastrophe," Obama told reporters outside the White House.