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Sri Lankan Rebels Say Government Attack Kills Many Civilians

In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebels say a military attack on a camp for displaced people has killed at least 45 civilians and wounded another 125. The rebels and the government have continued intermittent fighting since the collapse of peace talks less than two weeks ago.

Tamil Tiger rebels said scores of civilians who had taken shelter in a building in the eastern Batticaloa district were hit by heavy artillery shelling on Wednesday.

A Sri Lankan military spokesman said exchange of artillery fire and mortar bombs had been continuing in the area, but he was not aware of civilian casualties. He accused the rebels of using civilians as shields to attack government forces.

The latest incident occurred as security forces and Tamil Tiger rebels accuse each other of trying to spark a full-scale war.

Helen Olafsdottir, a spokeswoman for the Sri Lankan monitoring mission that supervises a tottering truce, says hundreds of civilians have been caught in the sporadic fighting that has been taking place in the north and the east since the start of the year.

"The violations being committed by both parties is actually affecting civilians,” she said. “We have at least well over 1,000 civilians dying this year. When the targets are becoming schools, hospitals, IDP camps, that is camps for displaced people, that's when we really have to ask the parties to cease or reduce hostilities because the situation is getting out of control."

Human rights groups have also appealed to the two sides to reduce the impact of the fighting on civilians.

But hopes of that happening faded late last month when peace talks collapsed after the government refused to open a key highway in the north. The highway serves as a supply route for Tamil populations in rebel-held areas.

However, Sri Lanka's government does appear to be heeding calls by the international community to probe human rights violations. Earlier this week it announced that a Supreme Court judge would formally investigate 15 incidents of rights abuses both by the army and the Tamil Tiger rebels in the past year. The inquiry will be supervised by international observers. The incidents to be probed include suicide attacks blamed on the rebels and an air strike in August that killed more than 60 school children.

The ethnic conflict in the country erupted a quarter century ago. The rebels are seeking greater autonomy for Tamil-dominated areas in the north and the east.