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Doctor says Sri Lanka civilian toll could be much worse

Associated Press

A mortar shell struck the only functioning medical facility in Sri Lanka’s northern war zone today, killing 47 patients and bystanders and wounding more than 50 others, rebels and a health worker said.

The attack came after a weekend of heavy shelling that killed hundreds of civilians, which the United Nations labeled a “blood bath.”

The military has denied that it was shelling the tiny coastal strip still under rebel control, which is packed with an estimated 50,000 civilians.

Rebel spokesman Seevaratnam Puleedevan told the Associated Press that a shell hit the hospital this morning. “They are still counting the dead bodies,” he said.

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A health worker at the makeshift hospital confirmed the attack, saying one mortar shell landed in the admissions ward that had been set up in a temporary shelter about 7:30 a.m., killing 47 patients and bystanders and sending patients fleeing.

A hospital administrator was among those killed and another 56 people were wounded, the worker said.

On Monday, volunteers dug mass graves to bury hundreds of civilians. A doctor in the war zone said as many as 1,000 civilians might have been killed in two days of shelling.

The worst barrage pounded the tiny sliver of northeastern coast still held by the rebels from Saturday night until Sunday morning, health officials said.

Another attack hit the area overnight Sunday, landing in a newly demarcated “safe zone” where the government had urged civilians to gather, according to Dr. V. Shanmugarajah, who works at a hospital in the area. It was unclear whether it was the same hospital shelled today.

A total of 430 Tamil civilians, including 106 children, were either brought to the hospital for burial or died there, he said.

The death toll was probably far higher, he said, because many of the dead would not have been brought to the hospital.

U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said the agency had been warning of a blood bath, which has become a reality.

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