Sri Lankan Crisis: Shelling on Hospital Brings Condemnation

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The Sri Lankan army vows to destroy the remaining hideouts of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) amidst international cries that civilians were being targeted and victimized in the infighting between the Lankan forces and the cadres of LTTE in the northern part of the island nation.

The Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa reaffirmed that Colombo ‘will continue with the military offensive’ until it could liberate the remaining areas from the clutches of the LTTE. He also criticized the LTTE leadership for their ‘refusal to pay’ attention towards the 48-hour ultimatum of their President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The hardliner Lankan President earlier appealed to the militant outfit to allow the civilians in the conflict zone to come out to a safe zone. In a portal run by the Sri Lankan government, Gotabaya also urged the international community to put pressure on the LTTE to provide safe passage for over one hundred thousand civilians in the battle zone.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issues a statement saying that the Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital in the northern Vanni region was under attack from shelling. The February 1 shelling killed at least two persons and wounded five others, the ICRC claimed.

“The hospital currently has over 500 in-patients, some of them still waiting to be transferred to the government-controlled area for more adequate treatment. Despite the attack, people injured by the fighting continue to arrive at the facility,” said Stephanie Bouaziz, the New Delhi based communication coordinator of ICRC.

Speaking to this writer, Stephanie revealed that the ICRC staff was still present in the Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital. The ICRC in association with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society continued to support the government health staff to extend the needed care for the injured and sick persons.

“Wounded and sick people, medical personnel and medical facilities are all protected by international humanitarian law. Under no circumstance may they be directly attacked,” argued Paul Castella, head of the Colombo delegation of the ICRC. He expressed shock that the hospital was not spared from being hit. It was not immediately known, who was responsible for the shelling, though both parties tried to allege the other.

“The staff is under acute stress, surrounded as they are by the sound of the ongoing fighting and the influx of new patients,” said Morven Murchison-Lochrie, an ICRC medical coordinator, who is still present in the hospital. She clarified that despite the incident, the hospital staff remained inventive and committed to their duties for the injured persons.

The ICRC has been supporting the hospital’s staff by setting up a makeshift structure for triage, receiving ambulances, and helping to clean the facility. It has also provided mattresses for patients who find themselves in the corridors because there is no longer any room in the wards.

“Ambulances are constantly arriving, but people are also being brought in by wagon, pick-up truck, tractor and even motor scooter,” Morven Murchison-Lochrie added. The ICRC has also repeated calls on both parties to respect their obligation to spare medical facilities and activities, as required by international humanitarian law in all circumstances.

Earlier the ICRC came forward advocating for the physical protection, medical care and basic assistance to those victims in the Vanni region. The organization claimed that over two hundred thousand people were trapped in a 250 square-kilometre area, which came under intense fighting. In a statement, the ICRC revealed that that hundreds of people were killed in the locality.

Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee flew to Colombo on Tuesday last week, amidst media reports that the LTTE was using civilians as human shields. Mukherjee, while speaking to reporters declared that New Delhi wanted to ensure the safety of civilians who had been caught in the crossfire. He, however, clarified that India had no sympathy towards the LTTE cadres.

“We are for the fight against terrorists and all sorts of terrorism. Therefore, we have no sympathy for any terrorist activity indulged in by any organisation, particularly LTTE which is a banned organisation in India,” Mukherjee commented.

While meeting the Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, Mukherjee urged the Lankan government to take the initiative for the safety of Tamil civilians trapped in the troubled zone. Meanwhile, quoting the Lankan army chief Sarath Fonseka, the local media reported that the LTTE lost almost 95 per cent of their operational area.

The ICRC, which is the only international aid agency to have remained permanently in the Vanni over the past four months with the agreement of both sides, continues to work alongside the Lankan Red Cross Society helping those in need.

The international agency is determined to stay as long as possible in the Vanni, but the parties must respect its presence and its work. Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to enter the Vanni and aid workers and their premises must be protected from shelling and looting, as required by international humanitarian law, argued Stephanie Bouaziz.

Nava Thakuria is a Guwahati (Northeast India) based journalist, who contributes to NewsBlaze and various media outlets throughout the world.