The Red Cross was working on Tuesday to pull off a daring beach evacuation of 400 sick and wounded civilians stranded in a community center inside Sri Lanka's war zone for nearly a week, an aid official said.
Meanwhile, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara accused the rebels of firing on a group of more than 1,000 civilians fleeing the war zone in Udayarkattu, inside what remains of rebel held territory in the northeast early on Tuesday. He said they killed 17 and wounded 69.
Confirmation of the report was not possible because independent journalists and nearly all aid workers are barred from the war zone. The rebels could not be reached for comment because communications to the north have largely been severed.
The wounded group the Red Cross was trying to evacuate fled the last functioning hospital in the war zone in Puthukkudiyiruppu last week after the compound came under repeated artillery barrages that killed several patients.
The intense fighting between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels made fleeing south across the front lines too risky, so the group instead headed deeper into rebel held territory. In the coastal village of Putumattalan, the Red Cross and government doctors set up a makeshift medical facility in an abandoned community center and a school, said Sarasi Wijesinghe, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, the area was shelled on Monday, she said. In addition, the overcrowded center does not have a reliable supply of drinking water, and "the lack of sanitation and hygiene is a problem," she said. "Some patients are lying on the ground, the floor."
On Tuesday, the aid group chartered a ferry flying the Red Cross flag from the government controlled town of Jaffna to the north and was hoping to evacuate the patients from the beach and bring them to safety, she said.
The government and international human rights groups have accused the Tamil Tigers of holding more than 200,000 civilians in the area hostage to use as human shields against the government's assault on the rebel group. The rebels deny the accusation.
In recent days, the military has reported an increasing flow of civilians out of the war zone.
A total of 6,599 reportedly crossed on Monday, even as a suspected rebel suicide bomber dressed as a war refugee killed 19 soldiers and 10 civilians, including two children, at an army checkpoint. The government earlier said the blast had killed 20 soldiers and eight civilians.
Amnesty International condemned the attack as a clear violation of international law.
"Blurring the distinction between civilians and combatants means that thousands of ordinary people, desperate to flee the conflict area, are at greater risk of reprisals and getting caught in crossfire," said Yolanda Foster, the London based group's Sri Lankan researcher.
Rights groups have also accused the government of killing and wounding civilians by firing artillery into the increasingly cramped war zone in a small pocket of the northeast.
The Tamil Tiger rebels have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for minority Tamils. Government troops have forced the rebels into a broad retreat in recent months and officials say they are on the verge of crushing the insurgency and ending a war that has killed more than 70,000 people.
Meanwhile, UN experts in Geneva criticized the "deteriorating human rights situation" here.
"A climate of fear and intimidation reigns over those defending human rights, especially over journalists and lawyers," Margaret Sekaggya, a UN appointed independent human rights expert, said in a statement on Monday.
Last week, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa accused the BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera and two ambassadors of favoring the Tamil rebels and warned they might be banned from the country.
The BBC said on Monday it was suspending FM radio programming to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corp. starting on Tuesday because of what it called "deliberate interference" in its broadcasts. Sri Lanka Broadcasting chairman Hudson Samarasinghe said the station was not concerned.