More civilians killed in Sri Lanka fighting

More civilians are being killed in north-east Sri Lanka, as the fighting continues between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

A female suicide bomber is reported to have killed 28 people and wounded dozens of others on Monday, when she blew herself up at a checkpoint for civilians fleeing the conflict zone. According to the Sri Lankan military, the woman was dressed as a civilian.

The attack happened in the Vishwamadu area of Mullaitivu district, as soldiers searched civilians trying to enter a government-declared safety zone. Thousands are said to be trying to cross to safety every day.

The LTTE have a long history of using suicide bombers and have, in the past, targeted civilians. They have not assumed responsibility for this attack.

Such tactics violate the international legal prohibition on perfidious attacks and expose civilians to increased danger.

“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, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka expert.

“The Tamil Tigers must immediately and publicly disavow the use of tactics such as suicide bombers disguised as civilians.”

Yolanda Foster added that it was important to remember that the use of such attacks by one party to an armed conflict did not excuse unlawful attacks in response.

“The Sri Lankan security forces must still make sure that their actions are directed against military targets and not civilians,” said Yolanda Foster.

There is reported to have been ongoing shelling in the government-declared safety zone – an area 7km long and 4km wide, declared by the government on 21 January.

According to information received by Amnesty International, 48 people were killed and 174 injured during heavy shelling on 6 February. Mahtalan, Thevipuram, Suthantirapuram, Moongilaru, Udayarhaddu and Vallipunam were shelled all day. Amnesty International cannot confirm where the shells originated.

On Saturday, 126 civilians including 61 patients were killed and 238 persons were fatally injured, when shelling was directed on the Puthukudiyirupu area. Some shells fell on Ponnampalam Memorial hospital killing the warded patients there. The area was also subjected to aerial bombing.

Shelling and cannon firing was also directed on the people displaced from Suthanthirapuram area, resulting in the death of 80 civilians and fatally injuring 198 persons.

“Hundreds of civilians have now lost their lives. The situation for families trapped in between the fighting parties is horrific. Both sides should stop their operations long enough to allow the civilians to leave and aid to reach those who can’t leave”, said Yolanda Foster.

The government has restricted media access to conflict areas making it impossible to verify accounts of what is happening on the ground.

The BBC World Service said on Monday that it was suspending the provision of FM radio programming to Sri Lankan national broadcaster SLBC, because it was selectively leaving out programmes and news reports in English, Sinhala and Tamil.

According to the BBC, parts of programmes have repeatedly been blotted out with music. Sometimes whole programmes have been blocked.

“In a war with no witnesses, it is the civilians who pay the price for both parties’ disregard for international humanitarian law,” said Yolanda Foster.