Hospital Hit In Sri Lankan Civil War

The U.N. says a third artillery attack has hit a hospital in the war zone in northern Sri Lanka, striking its pediatrics ward and killing several people.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And while the debate on what to do in Pakistan and Afghanistan continues, a long-running war has been playing out further south, well away from such talk and TV cameras. In Sri Lanka, an island shaped like a teardrop, off the tip of India, government forces are attempting to wipe out the rebel forces known as the Tamil Tigers. The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a separate ethnic state for a quarter of a century. That civil war has killed tens of thousands of civilians. And last night, more died when an artillery shell hit a children's ward in an overcrowded hospital. We're joined by our South Asia correspondent, Philip Reeves. And Philip, give us some background on this war.

PHILIP REEVES: Well, for some time now, the Sri Lankan army's been trying to eradicate the Tamil Tigers by inflicting an all-out military defeat on them. You'll recall that the Tigers want to establish a homeland for the island's Tamil minority in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The government's driven them out of all their northern strongholds, and has now cornered them in the north, in a pocket of jungle about a half the size of Chicago. The battle's getting fiercer as the army tries to secure outright victory. So, observers are saying this is a really critical moment, although probably not the end of the conflict because the Tigers have a history of using suicide bombers of assassinations and planting roadside bombs, and may continue the conflict using those kind of tactics.

MONTAGNE: And that ends up involving civilians as well.

REEVES: Yes, it does. And concern about civilians in this conflict is really rising by the day. Aid agencies say there are between 200 and 300,000 civilians caught up in that pocket of land that I referred to. There are Tamils who've lived under the administration of the separatists. The Sri Lankan government says that the Tamil Tigers are preventing them from leaving the pocket of land, and are using them as human shields. The Tamil Tigers are saying that they're not leaving because they fear abuse from the Sri Lankan army, and so they want to stay under their - the Tamil Tiger's protection. And all the while, this war is going on, really, all around them and recently, the Red Cross warned of what it called an unfolding humanitarian crisis.

MONTAGNE: And that was underscored by the shelling of that hospital yesterday. As I understand it, it was a pediatrics ward that was hit.

REEVES: Yeah, that's right. This is a tiny, provincial hospital. All the reports we're getting suggested it's totally overwhelmed at the moment. It has more than 500 patients. There are reports of the wounded coming in, pouring in, some of them on motorcycles, and some of them on tractors and so on. And the ward itself, according to the United Nations, has 30 beds, but was very badly overcrowded. It's a children's ward, and some of those children were sleeping on the floor. It was hit three times by shells yesterday, and the third shell hit that pediatric ward. The Red Cross says that as a result of all this, nine people have been killed and 20 wounded.

MONTAGNE: And is it known who fired the shells? I know the military is saying it didn't.

REEVES: That's right. The problem is, the Sri Lankan government bans journalists from the war zone. So information is very difficult to verify. The Red Cross and the U.N. aren't making a call as to who fired the shells, although a Sri Lankan health official is quoted as saying that two of these shells came from the army and not the Tamil Tigers. The Sri Lankan military is denying firing any of the shells that hit the hospital.

MONTAGNE: Thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Philip Reeves is NPR's South Asia correspondent.

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