Hundreds of sick and wounded people are stranded in a makeshift hospital in war-wracked northern Sri Lanka, the Red Cross said Saturday as it urged the government and Tamil Tiger rebels to let the patients out of the conflict zone. Meanwhile, the military said 14 rebels, including two leaders, were killed Friday in an air force raid on rebel positions. The chief of the rebel sea wing has been reported missing and could be among the dead.
The makeshift hospital in Puttumatalan village is the only medical facility available in the region after the war zone's last hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu was forced shut after being shelled for days in attacks the Red Cross said left at least 12 people dead and 30 wounded.
International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne said there are currently some 400 people, most of them lying on the floor in an overcrowded community center and in school buildings turned into makeshift wards, waiting to be taken to better hospitals in government-controlled territory.
The patients are among some 250,000 people trapped inside rapidly shrinking rebel territory near the island's northeastern coast as government troops come closer to crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The rebels have been fighting for 25 years for an independent state for the country's ethnic minority Tamils. Wijeratne said the Red Cross was particularly concerned about the patients stranded in the community center and school because Puttumatalan lacks clean drinking water.
The United Nations warned Friday of a food crisis in the conflict zone, saying World Food Program stocks in the area were gone. Wijeratne urged both sides to allow the patients to be evacuated. Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said that the government is ready to let the patients cross safely into government territory.
"We are willing to do that provided the LTTE is willing to release them," he said.
The government accuses the rebels of holding civilians as human shields, a charge the rebels deny.
The chief of the Tamil Tiger sea wing, only known as Soosai, has been reported missing since air force jets bombed his hide-out Friday, Nanayakkara said.
"They (the rebels) were searching for him, that's all we know," he said.
The rebels could not be reached for comment since all communications with rebel-held territory have been severed and journalists are not allowed in the war zone.
Nanayakkara also said 5,000 civilians crossed from the war zone into government-controlled territory Friday.
Some 70,000 people have died in Sri Lanka's civil war, which began in 1983 after years of marginalization of the Tamil minority by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.