Image: Sri Lankan soldiers carry coffin
Str/sri Lanka  /  Reuters
Sri Lankan soldiers carry a coffin during a colleagues' funeral procession in Ampara, Sri Lanka, on Wednesday.
updated 1/22/2009 9:38:25 AM ET 2009-01-22T14:38:25

The Sri Lankan military shelled a village and a makeshift hospital inside a government-declared "safe zone" for civilians in the north Thursday, killing at least 30 people and injuring scores of others, local health officials said.

The military denied hitting the hospital and said it was taking precautions to protect civilians. Health officials said at least 67 civilians were killed in shelling since Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the military announced the capture of a building the rebels had used as their main operations center in their fight against the advancing army.

With the government's offensive against the Tamil Tigers escalating, international aid groups are increasingly concerned about the safety of the hundreds of thousands of civilians reportedly living inside the shrinking pocket of rebel-held territory in the northeast.

Human rights groups have accused the rebels of forcing civilians to stay in the area to act as human shields — a charge the rebels deny.

In an effort to coax civilians to leave, the government dropped leaflets throughout the region Wednesday announcing the establishment of a "safe zone" on the edge of rebel-held territory that it would not attack. Civilians there would then be transferred across the front lines, the military said.

But an hour after the leaflets were dropped, two shells hit a makeshift hospital located in a school in Vallipunam, a village inside the "safe zone," said Kandasamy Tharmakulasingham, a local health official. No one was injured in that attack, he told The Associated Press.

On Thursday morning, the hospital and the nearby village were hit again in an attack so devastating that health officials had difficulty counting the bodies because many of them were dismembered, he said.

'A lot of bodies'
Dr. Thurairaja Varatharaja, the district's top health official, said the bodies of at least 30 people killed in the attack — five of them hospital patients — were brought to the morgue. Another 117 people — 66 of them women and children — were injured, he told the AP.

"There are a lot of bodies elsewhere, but they have not collected those bodies," he said, adding that the shelling was ongoing.

The shells came from the government-controlled area near the town of Oddusuddan, he said.

At least 37 other civilians were killed in shelling on Tuesday and Wednesday, bringing the three day death toll to 67, he said. That figure only included the bodies brought to the morgue, he said. Many others were so badly torn apart, relatives buried them immediately, he said.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara denied the military hit a hospital or a civilian village. "We have demarcated the safety zone, and we didn't fire into that area," he said.

Independent accounts of the fighting are not available because journalists are barred from the war zone.

Maps recovered
Meanwhile, government troops captured what appeared to be the rebels' main operations center, where they found detailed maps of troop deployments throughout the region, Nanayakkara said. The rebels appeared to have set up a new center elsewhere before the army moved in, he said.

In recent months, the army has pushed the rebels out of much of the territory they once controlled in the north, capturing the group's administrative capital of Kilinochchi and forcing the group into a broad retreat.

Police in Malaysia said they were on the lookout for the rebels' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, following speculation he might run to Southeast Asia, national police chief Musa Hassan was quoted as telling the New Straits Times newspaper. Musa could not immediately provide comment on Thursday. A federal police spokesman said he could not confirm the report.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 to establish an independent state for minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of successive governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

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