VOA's Steve Herman's photo essay from Colombo

There are contradictory accusations in Sri Lanka about who is to blame for the latest carnage caused by heavy shelling in the northern war zone.  The military and the rebels are blaming each other for the large number of reported civilian casualties.

A Sunday morning heavy artillery barrage is reported in the sliver of rebel-held territory as fighting continues between government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The LTTE and a government health official say many civilians died. A rebel official, quoted on the Tamilnet web site, blames bombing by Sri Lankan military planes and Army shelling for causing 2,000 civilian deaths since Saturday.

In an interview with VOA news, Army Brigadier Udaya Nanyakkara, a top defense spokesman, categorically denied military responsibility for the deaths. He said the Tamil Tigers are using their 120 millimeter and 81 millimeter mortars to deliberately shell trapped civilians.

"They're firing their mortars within the safe zone, towards this area where the civilians have gathered. This is mainly to kill civilians and put the blame onto the Army," Nanyakkara said.

A government doctor (V. Shanmugarajah) in the combat zone witnessed the shelling.  The doctor says 378 bodies and more than 1,100 wounded had been brought to the hospital but there are likely many more fatalities which were not tabulated at the medical center. 

Military spokesman Nanyakkara dismissed the physician's credibility. 

"This doctor is always giving statements and he has become a mouthpiece of the LTTE from the beginning of this operation," Nanyakkara said.

The military says fierce fighting continues as soldiers attempt to reach the trapped civilians in a three square kilometer pocket between a lagoon and the northeastern coast.

The Army acknowledges suffering casualties but is not releasing any numbers, only saying they are minimal compared to the number of rebels killed. 

The government announced two weeks ago that the final assault - which it calls the "world's largest hostage rescue operation" - would not include use of any heavy weapons in order to avoid harming the civilians.

The United Nations estimates between 50,000 and 100,000 Tamils are caught in the fighting.

The government says the exodus has been reduced to a trickle in recent days.  It says the rebels shoot any civilians they see attempting to flee the combat zone.

About 200,000 people who earlier fled the fighting are in government-built camps. 

Tamil rebels, for decades, have waged a violent campaign for an independent homeland. At its zenith, in 2006, the LTTE once controlled significant territory in the north and east (about one-third of the island) but a determined military offensive this year has pushed them to a tiny patch of the coast.

Government officials say they expect a total battlefield victory will be achieved any day.