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U.N. cites Sri Lanka cluster bomb use

Times Wire Services

The United Nations said today that cluster bombs had hit the last functioning hospital in Sri Lanka’s northern war zone and that 52 civilians had been killed in the region in the previous 24 hours.

On Tuesday, the United States, European Union, Japan and Norway urged the Tamil Tiger rebels to consider surrendering to avoid more deaths.

It was the first time cluster bombs were known to have been used in the government’s push to defeat the rebels since the collapse of a cease-fire in 2006. The Tigers have been routed from all major towns and now control just a jungle area.

U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said the hospital was being hit by cluster munitions in recent days when it was also hit by artillery barrages. He said the hospital is now nearly empty and “we hold the gravest fears for the safety of our staff and their families.”

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The call for the separatist Tigers to discuss a surrender came as the International Committee of the Red Cross said civilians were fleeing the hospital.

The ICRC says at least 12 people have been killed in the facility in Puthukkudiyiruppu, inside the 115 square miles of jungle in the island’s north where the guerrillas are cornered.

“There remains probably only a short period of time before the [rebel group] loses control of all areas in the north,” the joint statement from the United States and other nations said.

“The [Tigers] and the government of Sri Lanka should recognize that further loss of life -- of civilians and combatants -- will serve no cause.”

Aid agencies say 250,000 people are trapped in Tiger-held areas; the government says the number is about half that. The military and rebels again traded blame for shelling that has killed civilians.

Information from the war zone is impossible to verify, since journalists and most aid groups have been barred from the area.

Sri Lanka’s military said Tuesday that it had captured the last remaining rebel airstrip.

The takeover of the seventh airstrip was a largely psychological blow. The Tigers are believed to have only a few light aircraft.

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