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Northern Sri Lanka now hell on Earth -

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Northern Sri Lanka now hell on Earth

The World Today - Friday, 15 May , 2009 12:22:00

PETER CAVE: Conditions in northern Sri Lanka are now being described as the closest thing there
could be to hell on earth, with thousands of civilians still caught in the conflict between
government forces and rebel Tamil Tigers.

The Red Cross says its staff in the region are witnessing what it's calling an "unimaginable
humanitarian catastrophe", but the warring factions are ignoring growing international calls to end
the fighting.

Now the former colonial power Britain has raised the prospect of a war crimes investigation into
alleged actions by both sides.

Barney Porter has the story.

BARNEY PORTER: The United Nations estimates around six-and-a-half-thousand people have been killed
in the conflict since January, while up to 50,000 may still be trapped between the opposing forces.

In the latest reported incident, thousands of civilians under rebel fire have waded across a lagoon
to escape the war zone.

A Government military spokesman says at least four people were killed and 14 others wounded.

Melanie Brooks, from the charity Care International, has been working in refugee camps. She's told
the BBC the people arrive shell-shocked and emaciated.

MELANIE BROOKS: One woman went for three days, nine months pregnant, in a trench filled with water.
She showed me as the water level went up and up, and then she told me about how she gave birth in
that same trench.

So these are the kind of stories that we're hearing.

BARNEY PORTER: The Government and the rebels have brushed off the latest demands from the UN
Security Council and the US President Barack Obama to take steps to protect the civilians.

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

HILLARY CLINTON: We've called on both sides to cease their hostilities and we've asked that both
sides permit humanitarian relief to be delivered and at the very least a high level humanitarian
mission to make an assessment of what relief is necessary.

BARNEY PORTER: The Red Cross already has some workers in the region. Spokesman Marcal Izard has
described the scene to Radio National.

MARCAL IZARD: But it's really extremely tough, because you can imagine there are hundreds,
literally hundreds of severely wounded women and children and elderly people who cannot get out.

It's now three days in a row that we are trying to go to this conflict zone to evacuate the most
urgent cases - there are really hundreds of them - but because of this heavy fighting almost day
and night, it has been impossible for us to work.

And we now have to say we don't believe at the moment humanitarian aid can reach those people. And
it's really now that we need to go there.

BARNEY PORTER: Sri Lanka's Foreign Ministry spokesman Palitha Kohona has also denied civilians are
being targeted in the aerial and artillery bombardment of rebel forces.

PALITHA KOHONA: The Government has denied doing this, and the LTTE could very well have fired those
shells or those mortars. It could very well have done that deliberately to discredit the
Government.

And I think it is absolutely insane for the Government to fire at the civilians whom they are
trying to rescue. This does not stand to logic. These are our people.

BARNEY PORTER: But that reassurance appears to provide little comfort to those on the ground.

Mr Izard again.

MARCAL IZARD: Most of the time people actually are afraid of the fighting, so they are hiding most
of the day and night in (inaudible) shelters, in types of bunkers made out of sandbags.

We have even (inaudible), we have about 20 staff still there. Some of them are with their own
families and some of them are trying to work, you know, to evacuate the wounded. But they tell us
that it's just, it's really, I mean they cannot get drinking water, it's difficult to get food.
It's really what we say is a desperate situation.

BARNEY PORTER: Amnesty International has now called for a probe into what it's described as the
mounting evidence of serious violations of international law, while the UN's human rights chief has
already said both sides may be guilty of war crimes.

The conflict has sparked debate in the British Parliament.

Britain's Junior Foreign Minister is Bill Rammell.

BILL RAMMELL: We would support an early investigation into all incidents that may have resulted in
civilian casualties, particularly the reported shelling of hospitals, so as to determine whether
war crimes have been committed.

BARNEY PORTER: Marcal Izard says he can't confirm reports that medical staff have quit the last
hospital in the war zone.

MARCAL IZARD: But what we know is that anyhow, I mean there are really many urgent cases of people,
of wounded patients who die on the spot because of lack of medical access. And that's the reason we
are saying you need to go there and evacuate those people.

PETER CAVE: Red Cross spokesman Marcal Izard speaking there, or ending that report from Barney
Porter.