Rare images of suffering civilians trapped in Sri Lanka's war zone emerged Monday: Dead parents still cradling their children. A teenage boy with no arms crying in despair. A severely crowded hospital with many patients lying on mats under already full beds.
The photographs and video footage of scores of dead and wounded, which were handed to The Associated Press by independent observers traveling in the war zone, are a glimpse of the some 250,000 civilians trapped in the shrinking jungle battle zone as Sri Lanka tries to finally crush the Tamil Tigers after a 25-year war.
The images emerged as the hospital in the war zone — one of the last functioning health institutions inside rebel-held territory — shuddered under a second day of shelling, leaving two patients dead. Nine were killed in the shelling Sunday.
When alerted to the video and photographs, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara reiterated that "No civilians have been killed" in the fighting.
"There may be civilians injured, not due to shelling. But they may be injured because they have been employed on the construction of (rebel) defenses. Civilians maybe have been injured due to crossfire," he said.
Government near victory?
Sri Lanka's president again declared Monday the army is on the verge of crushing the ethnic separatist Tamil Tigers.
Journalists and aid groups have been barred from traveling to the war zone, but independent observers shot the video footage and photographs over the past week and provided them to The Associated Press. The observers did not wish to be identified because they feared government retaliation.
One photo from the town of Udayarkattu, inside a government-declared "safe zone" in rebel-held territory, showed family members apparently killed in their sleep by artillery Jan. 23, according to one of the observers who took the photograph. The mother and father lay dead on mats on the floor, still cradling their two children between them.
The government announced Jan. 21 that it was establishing a "safe zone" on the edge of rebel-held territory that it would not attack. Local health officials and human rights groups say the area has repeatedly come under attack in the past two weeks.
Video footage showed a hospital in the war zone packed with severely injured people. Many were forced to lie on mats underneath beds because of overcrowding.
Young boys and girls had legs amputated. An elderly woman missing her right leg lay on the floor. A teenage boy with no arms cried in despair, while an elderly man lay on a nearby bed with one leg amputated above the knee and the other below it.
In recent months, the Sri Lankan army has wrested all major towns once controlled by the Tigers, who are now defending a 115-square mile (300-square kilometer) pocket of mostly jungle.
It is the first time the Sri Lankan government has come this close to a military solution to Asia's longest-running civil war, centered over demands for a separate Tamil state in the north and the east.
"The strongholds of terror once believed to be invincible ... have fallen in rapid succession, bringing the final elimination of terror from our motherland and the dawn of true freedom to all our people well within our reach," President Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a message to mark the 61st Independence Day that will be celebrated Wednesday.
As the military pressed ahead, civilians continued to suffer.
The hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu was hit with several artillery shells on Sunday and Monday, Red Cross spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne said. In total, 11 people were killed and 26 wounded.
Kandasamy Tharmakulasingham, a local health official, confirmed the attacks. The Red Cross spokeswoman and Tharmakulasingham couldn't say who fired the shells.
"We're at a loss to understand why people would shell a hospital," said U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss, who did not cast blame on either side for the attack.
The U.N. confirmed the hospital was hit several times Sunday by artillery shells throughout the day.
"It seems to have struck the pediatric ward, a 30-bed ward filled to overflowing. The last communication that we had from our staff member on the ground was that they were still counting the dead," Weiss said Monday.
But Dr. Thurairajah Varatharajah, the top government health official in the area, said two of the attacks appeared to have come from the army. He said the shelling caused extensive damage to the hospital.
Varatharajah estimated last week that more than 300 civilians had been killed in the recent fighting. The government denied that. Varatharajah has not updated his estimate.
Nanayakkara, the military spokesman, denied the army was responsible for the attacks on the hospital and accused the rebels of "desperately" firing artillery shells at random.
Claims of human shields
The military claims the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, are holding the civilians as human shields, preventing them from fleeing their villages — a charge the rebels have denied.
A government spokesman urged civilians to seek shelter in the "safe zone," though there have been reports of shelling there as well.
"The government cannot be responsible for the safety and security of civilians still living among LTTE terrorists," Lakshman Hulugalle said.
He did not say how the civilians can come out if they are being held against their will, as claimed by the government.
Nanayakkara also claimed that troops found an underground luxury apartment belonging to rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran fitted with a luxury bathroom, a generator and electrical appliances.
"We believe it belongs to LTTE leader Prabhakaran," he said. "With the luxury items which we have come across there, it definitely has to be the leader's house."
The Tigers did not immediately comment on the report.
The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for ethnic minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war.