Human Rights Watch on Saturday accused Sri Lankan forces of repeatedly striking hospitals in the northern war zone with indiscriminate artillery and aerial attacks that have killed scores of people, a charge the military denied. The New York-based group claimed military commanders responsible for ordering or conducting such attacks "may be prosecuted for war crimes."
The accusation came amid growing international concern for an estimated 50,000 civilians caught in the fighting between government forces and the separatist Tamil Tigers.
Government troops in recent months have ousted the rebels from their strongholds across the north and say they have cornered the Tigers in a sliver of land just 2.4 miles- (4 kilometers-) long on the northeast coast.
Human Rights Watch said on Saturday it has information "about at least 30 attacks on permanent and makeshift hospitals in the combat area since December 2008" and blamed government forces. "Hospitals are supposed to be sanctuaries from shelling, not targets," Brad Adams, the group's Asia director, said in a statement.
One of deadliest attacks took place on May 2 when artillery shells struck Mullaivaikal hospital killing 68 people wounding 87, the statement said.
"While doctors and nurses struggle to save lives in overcrowded and underequipped facilities, Sri Lankan army attacks have hit one hospital after another," Adams said.
Military spokesman Brig Udaya Nanayakkara denied the accusation, saying the forces never targeted hospitals in their military operations.
"We have never attacked hospitals," he said. The government has also vowed to stop using heavy weapons in the fight out of concern for the civilians, but health officials and rights groups say the war zone is still being shelled. A government health official in the war zone said the area came under intense shelling on Friday. The official declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media. But Nanayakkara said soldiers were only using small weapons to capture the remaining rebel territory and end the island nation's quarter-century of civil war.
The government and rights groups, meanwhile, accuse the rebels of holding civilians as human shields, a charge the rebels deny. International pressure has grown for a humanitarian truce to protect the civilians still in the war zone. The government has rejected such calls.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority.