A government health official said Wednesday that witnesses reported 250 to 300 civilians were killed in fighting over the past week in northern Sri Lanka and said hospital records showed that more than 1,100 were wounded.
The report came as the government pledged to refrain from launching attacks inside a civilian refuge area set up in the war zone.
Concerns have grown over the safety of civilians trapped inside rebel-held territory amid a government offensive aimed at crushing the Tamil Tigers. The Red Cross estimates 250,000 civilians have fled to the jungle where fighting is taking place.
Dr. Thurairajah Varatharajah, the top government health official in the Mullaittivu district, told The Associated Press by telephone that at least 1,140 civilians — 248 of them younger than 15 — were wounded in the fighting and brought to three hospitals in the district, according to official figures from those hospitals.
The number killed was difficult to count because many civilians had stopped bringing dead relatives to the hospital amid the heavy fighting, he said.
"In my opinion, there are a lot of deaths. More than 250 to 300," he said, adding his estimate was based on reports from residents who came to the hospitals from the war zone.
U.N. workers come under fire
The United Nations said dozens of its workers and their relatives came under artillery fire they believed was from government troops as they sought refuge inside the government declared "safe zone" for ethnic Tamil civilians over the weekend.
The military denied firing into the area during its offensive to root the Tamil Tiger rebels from the northeast.
"If they came under fire, then definitely it has been done by the LTTE," military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said, referring to the rebels by their formal name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Amid the reports of rising casualties, Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee rushed to Sri Lanka on Tuesday night to meet with top officials, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The conflict is of special concern to India, home to some 56 million Tamils.
During the late-night meeting, Rajapaksa gave assurances Sri Lankan forces would respect the safe zone to "minimize the effects of conflict on Tamil civilians," according to nearly identical statements released by India and Sri Lanka on Wednesday.
"We are concerned with the civilians. I requested to the president to take care of these civilians," Mukherjee told reporters Wednesday.
The United Nations' local office sent a private e-mail to its New York headquarters, describing how its staff in the "safe zone" came under fire several times over the weekend. The memo, which was obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday, said the staff believed the fire was from Sri Lankan troops.
"Fortunately, because of good preparation, all staff and dependents were in hastily built bunkers and only one staff member was injured in the leg," the memo said. "But all around them was the carnage from casualties from people who may have thought they would be safer being near the U.N. Sadly, they were wrong that night."
Human rights groups and diplomats have expressed concerns for the civilians trapped in the shrinking territory still under rebel control — an area of about 115 square miles.
U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said his staff has seen "dozens of people killed and wounded" in the refuge over the past few days, including 10 civilians killed Monday. He said he did not know who was responsible for firing in the area.
But a local health official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the government, said he believed the government was responsible for the casualties because of the direction from which the fire came.
'Caught in the crossfire'
The Red Cross appealed to both sides Tuesday to allow the civilians to flee to safety.
"People are being caught in the crossfire, hospitals and ambulances have been hit by shelling and several aid workers have been injured while evacuating the wounded," said Jacques de Maio, the International Committee of the Red Cross head of operations for South Asia.
Nanayakkara, the military spokesman, said 3,141 civilians have fled to the government-controlled territory this month.
Rebels continue to pull their forces and civilians into the last remaining areas of dense jungle still under their control. Government forces captured Mullaittivu, the last town held by the rebels, on Sunday.
The Tamil Tigers have fought since 1983 to create a separate state for minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war.
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