Starving and trapped by fighting between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels, scores of civilians tried to flee villages in the northeastern war zone. But as they ran, the rebels opened fire, according to survivors' accounts.
Manoharan Mahendran said residents of Vishwamadu village begged to be allowed to cross into government territory last week, but the separatist Tigers blocked their path and fired indiscriminately.
"People were helpless," 53-year-old Mahendran told The Associated Press on Wednesday in a rare firsthand account, recalling the panicked exodus.
At least 1,000 others escaped Vishwamadu, said Mahendran, who went down with a gunshot to the leg. They are among the tens of thousands of civilians who have fled the fighting in northeastern Sri Lanka in recent weeks.
Mahendran — among hundreds of sick and wounded who made it out on a ferry commissioned by the Red Cross on Tuesday — waited for treatment at a hospital in the government-held port town of Trincomalee, south of the war zone.
Many arrived in critical condition, and two died, hospital officials said. One girl lay waiting to be treated, the words "spinal injury" scrawled along her arm.
Survivors at the hospital described dodging rebel gunfire and surviving the shelling of the last functioning hospital in the northeast.
'My wife and child got killed'
"My wife and child got killed in the shooting by the rebels," said 23-year-old Selvadorai Thavakumar from Kilinochchi, the former de facto rebel capital which the government captured in January.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for the country's minority Tamils. Some 70,000 people have been killed in 25 years of violence.
In recent months, the Sri Lankan military has seized key rebel strongholds and has pushed the rebels to a sliver of land in the northeast.
About 200,000 civilians are believed trapped in the remaining rebel-held territory as the Sri Lankan military pushes forward with its campaign to crush the separatist Tamil Tigers.
The government accuses the rebels of using them as human shields and of firing on fleeing civilians.
The rebels deny targeting civilians and accuse the military of making "killing fields" of so-called safe zones inside rebel territory that the government promised not to attack.
Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara dismissed the accusation.
"There is no reason for us to kill civilians," he said Wednesday. "We were not even aware that the civilians had been shot at until they came to us."
Confirmation of the government and rebel accounts was not possible because independent journalists and most aid workers are barred from the war zone. Communication to the north has largely been severed.
The Red Cross, the last major aid agency allowed to stay in the northeast, has not provided a figure for how many civilians have been killed or wounded in the recent flight from the war zone.
At a camp for war refugees in government-held Vavuniya District, one woman described waiting for hours positioned between the army and rebel lines in the village of Suthanthirapuram.
"At dawn we started toward the army post waving a white flag," said 20-year-old Kesava Sarvananda Dharshika.
Just then, the rebels fired from behind, killing her husband, a Hindu priest. She said she ran to the army post with their infant son in her arms.
Selvarani Sasikumar, a 31-year-old mother of four, said she feared her missing husband was dead.
In Trincomalee, war refugees described a scene of chaos and hardship.
Mahendran said the hospital in the rebel-held town of Puthukkudiyiruppu was shelled, and that many patients were killed or wounded. They were evacuated to a makeshift medical camp and then to a school.
The makeshift clinic in the school was overcrowded, with only two toilets for 500 people, said Dr. Thurairajah Varatharajah, the top government health official in the war zone.
"(Patients) are staying in the school building and under the trees and on the floor and on the ground," he said by telephone. "Everywhere there are patients."
Patients were dying every day because of a lack of medicine, clean water and care, Varatharajah said.
Artillery fire continued to strike the area, he said. On Monday, shells landing near the hospital killed 22 civilians and injuring at least 28 others, he said.
The U.S. Treasury Department said Wednesday it has frozen the assets of a U.S.-based charity, the Tamil Foundation, that officials say provided money to the Tamil Tigers.
The U.S. government considers the Tigers a terrorist group.