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Ceasefire urged as 52 killed in Sri Lanka war zone

COLOMBO (Reuters) - At least 52 civilians were killed by shelling in Sri Lankan’s northern war zone, the United Nations said on Wednesday, while a crowded hospital was hit again and Britain and the United States urged a cease-fire.

“There were 52 killed and 80 wounded from one sector,” said U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss, referring to the area of Suthanthirapuramin. “That was like a snapshot of the war zone.”

Weiss said he did not know who was responsible for shelling.

Sri Lanka’s military has encircled the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and is confident it will soon win a war that is one of Asia’s longest-running conflicts. Some 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting since 1983.

The United States and Britain want a cease-fire so casualties can be evacuated and relief supplies allowed into the war zone.

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The Tigers are holding out in a 300-sq km (115-sq mile) slice of jungle in Sri Lanka’s northeast. Aid agencies say 250,000 people are trapped in Tiger-held areas, but the government says the number is about half that.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the only hospital in the war zone was evacuated after it was hit for a fifth time in three days. The ICRC says at least 12 people have been killed in the hospital in Puthukudiyiruppu.

“We are shocked that a medical facility has again sustained direct hits. We have grave concerns for the well-being and safety of those who fled,” the head of the ICRC’s Colombo delegation, Paul Castella, said in a statement.

In Geneva, where the ICRC is based, about 6,000 Tamils from across Europe protested outside the United Nations’ European headquarters on Wednesday to demand international intervention to stop the killing of civilians in Sri Lanka, whose 30-year civil war has cost the $32 billion (22.1 billion pound) economy dearly.

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The latest casualties came as Sri Lanka on Wednesday celebrated 61 years of independence from former colonial ruler Britain.

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President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who presided over a military parade in the capital Colombo, hailed the military’s recent push for victory against what he described as “the most powerful terrorist organisation in the world.”

“I am confident that in a few days we will decisively defeat the terrorist force that many repeatedly kept saying was invincible,” Rajapaksa said. He also used his address to the nation to urge nationals who fled the country to return home.

A joint statement by the United States and Britain after a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband raised serious concerns about the plight of civilians caught up in the conflict.

The pair called on “both the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to agree to a temporary no-fire period. Both sides need to allow civilians and wounded to leave the conflict area and to grant access for humanitarian agencies,” the statement said.

The United States, European Union, Japan and Norway on Tuesday urged Tamil Tiger rebels to consider surrendering to avoid more deaths.

Rajapaksa also said that in the space of 2-1/2 years the army had reached the stage where it had almost completely defeated the rebels.

“Our troops were able to carry forward the battle against terror with great care so as not to cause harassment to the innocent Tamil people,” he said.

Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis in Geneva; Editing by Jon Boyle