B. Muralidhar Reddy

Pro-LTTE media exaggerating toll: Colombo

COLOMBO: The Sri Lankan Government on Thursday expressed "regrets" over the killing of scores of innocent civilians housed in a camp for the displaced in Vaharai in the LTTE-controlled area in the east on Wednesday and charged the Tamil Tigers with using civilians as human shield.

Norwegian Minister for International Development Erik Solheim expressed concern over "the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka," particularly the intense military operations some involving repeated aerial bombardment that has affected innocent civilians.

"I am very troubled by the Government's onslaught today in Vaharai, in the eastern part of Sri Lanka. Yet again, it is civilians who are being killed and made to suffer due to military operations. I am extremely disappointed that the parties are not honouring the promises they made in Geneva a week and a half ago to refrain from launching any military offensives and to abide by the Ceasefire Agreement," said Mr. Solheim said in a statement released here.

"It is very worrying that the civilian Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, headed by Lars Sølvberg, came close to being hit by grenades fired by the Sri Lankan army near Punarin, in northern Sri Lanka. We have asked the Sri Lankan Government for an immediate explanation," he said.

Army's denial

The army denied that its troops had targeted the SLMM chief and said it was not informed of any SLMM movements. The SLMM chief was taken to the area by the LTTE when he had visited Kilinochchi to discuss the Government proposal on an alternative route to A 9.

At a special briefing here, Defence spokesman and Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said the army targeted "identified" LTTE gun positions at Kathirweli in Vaharai on Wednesday. "However, information [was] received that 23 persons died and 125 others injured. Immediately, the Government facilitated the ICRC and SLMM representatives to visit the area," he said.

Information Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa said three Ministers and the army commander had briefed the Co-Chairs on the incident.

He complained that pro-LTTE media groups were giving exaggerated figures of civilian deaths and injuries in the incident. He said according to the ICRC sources, 23 civilians had been killed and 125 injured in Vaharai.

He said hundreds of civilians who had crossed over into the Government territory to escape the LTTE harassment had told the security forces that they were forced to dig trenches and transport weapons and ammunitions by the Tigers.

The pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance MPs in a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General urged "immediate action" to safeguard the internally displaced civilians.