COLOMBO - At least 52 civilians were killed in the past day's fighting between Tamil rebels and government forces in northern Sri Lanka, and cluster bombs struck the war zone's last functioning hospital Wednesday, the UN said.
The strikes occurred as the country marked its 61st Independence Day with a grand military parade and a speech by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who declared that the military has nearly crushed the 25-year Tamil rebellion for a separate homeland.
UN spokesman Gordon Weiss told reporters that 52 civilians were killed and 80 wounded in fighting Tuesday inside and outside a government-designated safe zone where it had pledged not to strike.
The fighting is concentrated in a sliver of coastal land, known as Vanni, where an estimated 250,000 Tamil civilians are trapped along with the last of the Tamil Tiger rebels, who now appear on the verge of defeat after a fruitless civil war since 1983 to create a separate homeland for the country's minority Tamils.
About 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting with the Sinhalese-dominated government.
Mr. Weiss said 15 UN staffers and 81 family members are trapped in the Puthukkudiyiruppu area, where the hospital was hit by cluster bombs Wednesday. He said 90 per cent of patients have been evacuated to the north including critically injured patients and the medical staff.
"The last remaining medical facility inside the Vanni pocket has been effectively closed," he said.
It is the first time cluster bombs are reported to have been used since a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire broke down in 2006 and the government launched its offensive.
"We hold the gravest fears for the safety of our staff and their families," Mr. Weiss told reporters.
It was not clear who launched the cluster bombs. Mr. Weiss said the hospital area was also hit over the past day by air strikes, likely by the government's air force because the Tamil Tigers have no air capability left.
The government did not immediately respond to the cluster bomb report, though the military previously has insisted that it has not targeted civilians.
All defence spokespeople were at a parade to mark the country's independence from colonial power Britain 61 years ago.
In a nationally televised Independence Day speech from the parade viewing stand, Mr. Rajapaksa said many foreign governments had said it was not possible to destroy the Tamil Tiger rebels, who had built up a sophisticated military in addition to a suicide squad.
For nearly three decades "we were forced to celebrate independence with an illegal armed group operating in our country ... Today we have been able to nearly destroy terror," Mr. Rajapaksa said.
"Our heroic forces today have given us an opportunity to celebrate independence in a country nearly free from terrorism," he said in a speech from a heavily guarded beachfront promenade before watching a grand military parade.
In recent months, Sri Lankan troops have routed the Tamil Tiger rebels from most areas of the de facto homeland they had carved out in the north and the east for the country's minority Tamils. They are now cornered into a small area in the country's northeast and a defeat appears imminent
"At this moment I urge all Sri Lankans from all communities who fled the country because of the war to return to their motherland," Mr. Rajapaksa said. He did not elaborate but the reference was apparently to hundreds of thousands of minority Tamils who have sought political asylum in the West.
The Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital has been hit continuously by a barrage of artillery since Sunday, leaving at least 12 people dead.
Dr. Thurairajah Varatharajah, the top health official in the war zone, estimated last week that more than 300 civilians had been killed in the recent fighting, something the government denied. Varatharajah has not updated his estimate.
The government accuses the rebels of holding civilians against their will as human shields, a charge the rebels deny.