The Sri Lankan military and rebels traded blame Sunday for an artillery attack that reportedly killed hundreds of civilians, with the army accusing the encircled Tamil Tigers of launching the assault to press authorities for a truce and the guerrillas saying the deaths were further evidence of government atrocities.
The attack took place late Saturday and early Sunday, with artillery shells reportedly lobbed into a densely packed area of northern Sri Lanka, resulting in at least 378 civilian deaths, the rebels said.
But the army blamed the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. “The LTTE fired mortars indiscriminately into this place,” army spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said Sunday. “They fire indiscriminately at civilians because it’s the only weapon left them. And they may be forcing doctors to give these kinds of statements.”
TamilNet.com, a pro-rebel website, accused the government forces of carrying out the artillery barrage. Citing medical sources, it said the shelling killed at least 378 people and wounded 814.
“More than 2,000 innocent civilians have been killed in the last 24 hours,” it said, quoting Selvarajah Pathmanathan, the rebels’ foreign relations intermediary and a weapons smuggler wanted by Interpol. This, it said, amounts to “state terrorism and a war crime.”
Bitter accusations, propaganda and a lack of credible information have been long-standing features of this war.
The army, citing safety concerns, has severely restricted access into the northern area by news media or humanitarian groups -- both of which it has at times accused of being rebel sympathizers.
The Tigers, accused of numerous human rights violations, have rarely allowed media access to areas they control. The U.S. and European Union have labeled the group as terrorist, while the United Nations has accused it of using civilians as human shields.
On Sunday, the government deported three journalists with Britain’s Channel 4 on charges that their stories were “tarnishing the image of the country.”
Channel 4 had broadcast a report last week quoting what it said were Tamil aid workers inside a humanitarian camp saying that war-displaced people there were underfed and mistreated and that some women had been sexually abused.
The government called the report Tamil Tiger propaganda, saying that its camps were considered largely up to international standards by U.N. and foreign officials.
The civil war has raged since 1983. The Tigers seek an independent homeland for ethnic Tamils marginalized in Sinhalese-majority Sri Lanka.
After years of relative stalemate, the army recently made dramatic advances and now has the Tigers trapped in a 2-square-mile area on the island’s northern coast surrounded by 50,000 troops.
Foreign governments and U.N. agencies have repeatedly asked the government to halt the hostilities so that noncombatants trapped in the sliver of land can reach safety. But the army contends that any halt would allow the rebels to escape or regroup.
As the military endgame nears, a man who once worked closely with Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tigers, said the guerrilla chief would never surrender and would soon be “eliminated.”
Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, also known as Col. Karuna, joined the Tigers when he was 19. He led forces in eastern Sri Lanka until 2004 when he defected to the government side, paving the way for the latest military advances. In March he was appointed Sri Lanka’s minister for national integration and reconciliation.
“The LTTE is nearly finished,” Karuna said in an interview at his heavily fortified headquarters in Colombo, the capital, where visitors are frisked. “I am No. 1 on the LTTE’s hit list. Prabhakaran hates me.”
If Prabhakaran dies, the rebels won’t appoint another leader, he predicted. “There are no new leaders waiting in the LTTE,” Karuna said. “They are finished.”
Thileepan Parthipan, a spokesman for the LTTE, who spoke by telephone from what he said was a bunker, agreed that Prabhakaran would never give himself up alive. Tiger leaders are known to carry cyanide capsules.
“He’s fighting for his people and is still with us,” he said. Reports that the guerrilla leader had fled the conflict zone were army disinformation, he said, adding that people in the area were starving and the international community needed to intervene to prevent a humanitarian disaster.
Parthipan denied that the Tigers were using civilians as human shields. “You should realize, these are our own mothers, brothers, wives,” he said. “It’s the army that is using our people as human shields.”
In the interview, Karuna sought to paint Prabhakaran as a leader who kept himself out of danger while demanding great sacrifices from his cadres, and someone who failed to read the political situation correctly.
“Prabhakaran made many mistakes” by not seriously pursuing peace negotiations, the burly, mustached former fighter said. “I spent 22 years with him and he never came to the battlefield.”
Karuna said it was unsafe for him to travel around the country.
Some analysts and regional diplomats fear Sri Lanka could win the war but lose the peace if its postwar policies prove prejudicial to the marginalized Tamil community, thereby providing fertile ground for a new LTTE-like group.
Karuna, who has been accused of appalling acts of barbarism with both the Tigers and the government, said Prabhakaran must die, not because he holds any remaining sway over the Tamil populace but as punishment for the things he has done.
“He’s a very horrible man,” Karuna said. “He has to be eliminated.”
Ridge is a special correspondent.