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In Sri Lanka, Aid Agencies Say Hospital Hit by Shells

In Sri Lanka, aid agencies say a crowded hospital in the northern war zone has been shelled, killing at least nine people. The attack on the hospital comes amid growing concerns for an estimated 250,000 civilians caught in the fighting between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

The United Nations spokesman in Colombo, Gordon Weiss, said Monday that shells have hit the "largest remaining functioning hospital" in the Wanni region, where the army is on an offensive to crush Tamil Tiger rebels.

"Throughout the day Sunday there were series of artillery and rocket strikes quite close to the hospital and there were at least three direct hits on the hospital, the last of which was around midnight, last night, when what we think is about five shells hit the pediatric ward killing and wounding a number of people," Weiss said.

The hospital is inside a 300-square-kilometer area in the northeast, in which Tamil rebels have been confined following a year-long military operation. Scores of wounded people, caught in the crossfire between the two sides, have been heading to the medical facility in recent weeks. Aid agencies say many patients are lying on mattresses in corridors.

The spokesperson for the International Committee of Red Cross in Colombo, Sophie Romanens, says the Red Cross team working at the hospital paints a grim picture.

"The staff there are under acute stress," Romanens said. "They are surrounded by the sound of the ongoing fighting and the constant influx of patients. There are ambulances constantly arriving. People are also brought by wagon, pick up trucks, tractor, any vehicles basically."

Aid agencies have expressed shock at the shelling and call it a significant breach of international humanitarian law. They say medical facilities must not be attacked, under any circumstances.

The army says it is not responsible for the shelling and blames it on the rebels.

Aid agencies say about 250,000 ethnic Tamil civilians trapped in the area face hunger as food supplies dwindle. The Red Cross has urged both sides to allow safe passage for the wounded civilians.

Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse has accused some diplomats and several media organizations of sensationalizing civilian hardships and warns that they will be expelled, if they seem to favor the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a separate Tamil homeland. In the last year, they have suffered huge reverses, losing most of the territory they controlled for nearly a quarter century.