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Shelling of civilian targets and hindering humanitarian assistance of ICRC

Apr 18, 2011 8:39:25 PM- transcurrents.com

Extracts from the Ban Ki Moon advisory panel report on Sri Lanka

6. SLA shelling in the second No Fire Zone

100. From as early as 6 February 2009, the SLA continuously shelled within the area that become the second NFZ, from all directions, including land, air and sea. It is estimated that there were between 300,000 and 330,000 civilians in that small area. The SLA assault employed aerial bombardment, long-range artillery, howitzers and MBRLs as well as small mortars, RPGs and small arms fire, some of it fired from a close range. MBRLs are unguided missile systems designed to shell large areas, but if used in densely populated areas, are indiscriminate in their effect and likely to cause large number of casualties.

101. At the time, the Defence Secretary stated: "We are taking casualties to prevent civilians getting hurt. This is a factor we are very concerned about. Otherwise we could have used so much artillery and just moved on. The Government announced on 25 February, and again on 27 April, that the SLA was no longer using heavy weapons in the second and third No Fire Zones. But what was happening on the ground indicated the opposite. Intensive artillery fire had been a core tactic in the SLA’s military campaign from the outset. As victory neared, this tactic was not abandoned, but rather its use was intensified, even though the LTTE was now immobilized and surrounded in an area of high civilian density. The intensive shelling also caused many civilians to attempt to flee the area, meeting another of the Government’s objectives, to put pressure on civilians to get out of the way. Despite Government pronouncements, satellite images in Annex 3 show that SLA artillery batteries were constantly adjusted to increasingly target the NFZs. The LTTE had fewer heavy weapons left and less space to fire them from.

102. The coastal strip became increasingly crowded, and liveable spaces were in short supply. Much of the land where IDPs set up shelters was beach territory, with sandy, waterlogged land unsuitable for human habitation, and it was difficult for IDPs to construct makeshift bunkers to protect themselves. Daily life for the IDPs at that time took place mostly inside the bunker, although some IDPs hoisted white flags over their shelters in an attempt to protect themselves. Fresh water was scarce and food was in such short supply that a few people died of starvation. When the seasonal rains came, many bunkers were flooded, adding to the general misery of the people.

7. Shelling of Putumattalan Hospital

103. When the PTK hospital relocated to Putumattalan, the Government stated that "there are now no hospitals functioning in uncleared areas in the Vanni". Nonetheless, the second NFZ had three makeshift hospitals, including Putumattalan, a small clinic at Valayanmadam and a hospital in Mullivaikkal. All of their coordinates were known to the Government, and they were clearly marked with emblems. Government doctors continued providing their services there. Putumattalan hospital was severely overcrowded with hundreds of newly injured civilians. As the Government did not allow basic medical supplies into the Vanni, conditions in Putumattalan hospital were so poor that a large number of amputations were performed without anesthetic, using butcher knives rather than scalpels. Sanitary pads and cotton cloths were used as bandages, and intravenous drips were hung from the trees, with the severely-injured patients lying on the ground under them. In spite of the significant efforts of the few available doctors, many patients died due to lack of access to proper medical care, and scores of bodies were deposited in front of the hospital each day.

104. On 9 February 2009, shells fell on Putumattalan hospital, killing at least 16 patients. The shells came from SLA bases in Chalai, but subsequently shells were also fired from SLA positions across the lagoon (even though the hospital was clearly visible to the SLA based there). While some wounded LTTE cadre were treated at Putumattalan hospital, they were few in number and were kept in a separate ward. Putumattalan hospital was shelled on several occasions after that, in February and March. RPGs were fired at the hospital around 27 March killing several civilians. In addition to civilian casualties, the operating theatre, makeshift ward and roof all sustained damage.

105. While individual incidents of shelling and shooting took place on a daily basis, destroying the lives of many individuals of families, the SLA also shelled large gatherings of civilians capable of being identified by UVAs. ON 25th March, an MBRL attack on Ambalavanpokkanai killed around 140 people, including many children. On 8 April 2009, a large group of women and children, who were queued up at a milk powder distribution line organized by the RDHS, were shelled at Ambalavanpokkanai. Some of the dead mothers still clutched cards which entitled them to milk powder for their children.

8. Hindrance of humanitarian assistance via the ICRC ships

106. The ICRC continued to play a leading role in alleviating the plight of the civilian population in the Vanni, by evacuating wounded civilians from the coastal strip by ship, starting on 10 February 2009. In total, 16 ICRC ships came to the conflict zone in the final months. The international ICRC staff that had remained the Putumattalan left on the first ship, but they returned and stayed onshore for a few hours each time the ships came back. The Government did not allow United Nations staff on the ships.

107. The LTTE issued passes for injured civilians and some of their dependents to leave the area on ICRC ships, but the wounded had to be ferried on small boats, as the ship was not allowed to come closer than a kilometer offshore. The wounded were lined up on the beach, but several times came under fire. Shells fired by the SLA sometimes fell in the sea near the ICRC ships. Around 22 April, shelling near a ship forced the captain to return to deeper waters.

108. The ICRC’s ships were also the only means for delivering food, but the supplies they were allowed to bring by the Government were inadequate. As conditions in the NFZ became more desperate, on 17 March, a large crowd of IDPs surrounded an international ICRC staff member who came ashore, begging him to save their lives by taking them out of the Vanni. The LTTE forcibly dispersed the crowd. The final ICRC ship came to the Vanni on 9 May 2009. ON 15 May 2009, a ship approached, but had to turn back due to the intensity of the fighting. In all, ICRC evacuated 14,000 wounded persons and their relatives from the second and third NFZs and delivered around 2,350 metric tons of food to Mullivaikkal. Those evacuated were all civilians, as the LTTE did not permit its cadre to leave the conflict area for treatment.

(The above extracts are from pages 28 to 32 of the Advisory panel on Sri Lanka appointed by N Secretary - General Ban Ki Moon)