President Barack Obama scolded both sides of Sri Lanka's quarter-century-old civil war on Wednesday, demanding that the government stop shelling hospitals and that Tamil Tiger rebels cease using civilian shields.
Before leaving the White House for a trip to the state of Arizona, Obama told reporters that the situation on the south Asian island could turn from a humanitarian crisis to a full-blown catastrophe. He strongly urged both sides to take steps to alleviate suffering.
"Tens of thousands of innocent civilians are trapped between the warring government forces and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka with no means of escape, little access to food, water, shelter and medicine," Obama said on the White House's South Lawn. "This has led to widespread suffering and the loss of hundreds, if not thousands of lives."
Officials in Sri Lanka said artillery shells on Wednesday tore through a hospital for a second day, killing at least 50 and crippling the medical facility. The government set off a wave of bombardments in the war zone this weekend and has killed as many as 1,000 people.
The Sri Lanka government says its troops are not responsible for the shelling and that the military has not fired heavy weapons in the area in weeks.
But Human Rights Watch says satellite images and witness testimony contradict that claim and has accused both sides of using the estimated 50,000 civilians packed into the tiny coastal strip controlled by the rebels as "cannon fodder."
Obama said the United States is ready to work to end the conflict.
"Now's the time, I believe, to put aside some of the political issues that are involved and to put the lives of the men and women and children who are innocently caught in the crossfire, to put them first," Obama said.
Amnesty International urged Obama to push for a truce and appealed to the U.N. Security Council to establish a commission of inquiry into violations of international law. Outside the White House, protesters have been chanting in recent days of Obama to take action.
Obama urged the Tamil Tigers to stop fighting and release civilians as a first step toward peace. "Their forced recruitment of civilians and their use of civilians as human shields is deplorable. These tactics will only serve to alienate all those who carry them out."
He also said the government should stop the "indiscriminate shelling" and the use of heavy weapons in the conflict zone. He asked the government to give the United Nations and Red Cross staff access to the 190,000 displaced civilians.
"Going forward, Sri Lanka must seek a peace that is secure and lasting and grounded in respect for all of its citizens," Obama said. "More civilian casualties and inadequate care for those caught in resettlement camps will only make it more difficult to achieve the peace that the people of Sri Lanka deserve."
On Wednesday afternoon, the area around the hospital came under heavy shell attack, Dr. V. Shanmugarajah told The Associated Press by telephone — the third time it has come under fire this month and just . One shell landed in an administrative office of the hospital, while another hit a ward filled with patients already wounded by previous shelling, he said.
Obama calls for end to violence
Dr. Thurairaja Varatharajah, the top health official in the war zone, said the attack killed at least 50 people, including patients, relatives and a health aide, and wounded about 60 others.
He said heavy shelling continued throughout the day.
"We are unable to treat the people properly because a lot of aides have fled the hospital. We go into bunkers when there is shelling and try to treat them as much as we can when there is a lull," he said by telephone.
Doctors in Sri Lanka say last weekend's warfare alone may have killed 1,000 people.
Bodies left insideMore than 1,000 civilians — many with amputations or chest wounds — were waiting for treatment at the hospital when it was struck, and every 10 minutes or so another one or two died, according to a third hospital official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by the government to speak to the media.
Overwhelmed doctors have been reduced to handing out gauze and bandages to the seriously wounded, the official said. More than 100 dead bodies have been left inside the compound because no one will risk burying them amid the constant shelling, he said.
The hospital's admissions ward was hit by a mortar round Tuesday in an attack that killed 49 patients and bystanders, health officials said.
Rebel spokesman Seevaratnam Puleedevan said shells also hit a home for mentally handicapped women, killing 38 and wounding more than 40. The health officials said they were not able to confirm that attack.
Shelling also killed Red Cross worker Mayuran Sivagurunathan and his mother and prevented a Red Cross ferry off the coast from delivering food aid and evacuating the wounded, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
'Many shells falling'The aid group said it was not sure if its employee was killed in the hospital attack.
"There are many shells falling. I don't know if it was the same attack," Red Cross spokesman Marcel Izard said.
Shelling in the area also killed Red Cross worker Mayuran Sivagurunathan, according to Sarasi Wijeratne, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross. It also prevented a Red Cross ferry off the coast from delivering food aid and evacuating the wounded, she said.
Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government has barred journalists and aid workers from the war zone.
The government has come under heavy international criticism for the large civilian toll of its offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called the conflict zone "as close to hell as you can get," and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined him in expressing alarm at the civilian casualties.
Human Rights Watch said witness testimony and satellite images of the area taken Sunday and analyzed by experts "contradict Sri Lankan government claims that its armed forces are no longer using heavy weapons" in the war zone.
Before-and-after imagesThe American Association for the Advancement of Science analyzed satellite photos of the area taken Sunday morning — after a night of heavy shelling was reported in the area — and compared it to an image taken four days before. The report was done at the request of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
"By comparing before-and-after satellite images, we were able to see a significant movement of the region's human population, suggesting widespread displacement. We also saw destroyed structures and circular, crater-like features consistent with widespread shelling," said Lars Bromley, director of the association's Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project.
One area, which had been densely packed with tents and other structures in the earlier photo was nearly empty Sunday morning. Another photo provided by Amnesty showed two white circles near a cluster of trees that were identified as impact craters.
While Bromley said the images did not show who was behind the destruction, Human Rights Watch said a health official in the area had told them the artillery was being fired from an area under the control of government forces.
Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara denied troops were responsible for any shelling. He said the war zone had grown too small for the use of such weapons and rebel booby traps might be exploding by accident.
The U.N. has cast doubt on the government's claim.
"The government have said they are not using heavy weapons, but the evidence suggests that they are continuing to do so, at least to some extent," U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said.