Hundreds killed in Sri Lanka "bloodbath"

COLOMBO Mon May 11, 2009 4:25pm EDT

1 of 2. Tamil men who said they are more than 100 years old eat their food rations at a temporary shelter in the Samanagkulam school located on the outskirts of the town of Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka May 11, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

COLOMBO (Reuters) -- The United Nations on Monday said attacks in Sri Lanka that killed hundreds were the bloodbath it had long feared, while the Tamil Tigers and government traded blame ahead of U.N. Security Council talks about the war.

In the latest and largest reported assault on civilians trapped in the war zone, hundreds of people were reported killed on Sunday and Monday in artillery barrages that struck the less than 5 sq km (2 sq mile) strip of territory the separatist rebels control.

The stakes could not be higher for either Sri Lanka, which does not want its impending conventional victory in the 25-year-war snatched away, or the Tigers, who have vowed no surrender despite facing overwhelming numbers, force and odds.

"We've been consistently warning against a bloodbath, and the large-scale killing of civilians including more than 100 children this weekend appears to show that the bloodbath has become a reality," U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said.

The United Nations warned in an internal briefing document in March that civilians could be killed either by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) trying to manufacture a slaughter to blame the government, or in an indiscriminate military advance.

The rebels blamed the government, which in turn said the LTTE had fired on the people it has been holding hostage for months in a last-minute move to secure international pressure for a truce to stave off defeat.

A doctor in the war zone, paid by the government but whose personal safety is at the whim of the Tigers, said at least 433 bodies had been brought to a makeshift hospital, and 1,347 people had been wounded in two days of shelling.

"Most of the dead bodies are in the road, houses and everywhere. In the shelling there should be more dead, around 1,000," said a man who identified himself as Thurairajah Varatharajan, the senior medical officer for the district.

NO INDEPENDENCE

Getting a clear picture of events in the war zone -- known as the Wanni -- is next to impossible, as it is generally closed to outsiders and those within it are not fully independent of pressure that is often applied at gunpoint.

"Nothing that comes out of the Wanni can be objective and independent. We know LTTE is in full control and these public servants are under pressure," Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told reporters, referring to the doctors.

The pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com quoted a senior LTTE official as saying that 2,000 people had been killed, and denied the rebels were responsible.

"We call upon the international community and the U.N. Security Council 'as a matter of urgency' to take all measures capable of genuinely preventing any further massacres," TamilNet quoted LTTE diplomatic head Selvarajah Pathmanathan as saying.

Pathmanathan for years was the LTTE's chief weapons smuggler and is wanted by Interpol.

Diplomats said the U.N. Security Council was due to have another informal meeting over Sri Lanka on Monday with the foreign ministers of Britain and France, who had a stormy visit to Sri Lanka at the end of April, due to attend.

The council is split over whether to elevate discussion of Sri Lanka's war to a formal level where it could act. The United States and Britain are pushing a ceasefire, while Russia and China have backed Sri Lanka's opposition to a truce.

Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa said the LTTE timed the attack to come just before the meeting, the daily newspaper the Island reported on Monday.

The LTTE has been fighting an all-out civil war since 1983 to create a separate state for minority Tamils in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

(Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Alex Richardson)