Shells hit a crowded hospital in northeast Sri Lanka, killing at least nine people and raising fears Monday for thousands of civilians caught in a final military push against cornered Tamil Tiger rebels.
The shelling of the hospital on Sunday evening, which the agencies said violated humanitarian law, came as the military said it would move in to free thousands of people trapped by fighting with Tamil Tiger rebels after a government-declared 48-hour truce lapsed.
Sri Lanka's army has surrounded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a 300 sq km (115 sq mile) slice of jungle in the Indian Ocean island's northeast, aiming to end a war that began in 1983 and is one of Asia's longest-running conflicts.
Concern has grown for the safety of 250,000 people aid agencies say are trapped inside the battle zone, although the government describes those numbers as overblown.
"We're shocked that the hospital was hit, and this for the second time in recent weeks," Paul Castella, head of the Colombo delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said in a statement.
The ICRC had earlier said hundreds had been killed or wounded in fighting since mid-January. Colombo disputes the number of civilian casualties but has not provided exact figures of its own.
Responsible side unkown
The ICRC did not say which side was responsible for the shelling.
The Tigers were not immediately available for comment but the pro-rebel www.tamilnet.com website blamed the firing on the Sri Lankan military.
"Sri Lanka Army shelled Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK) hospital Sunday night killing six civilians, including patients and their family members in the ward. More than 15 civilians were injured," the website said.
Sri Lankan military denied any shell firing by its troops.
The United Nations also said the hospital was shelled on late Sunday evening and many casualties reported as the hospital was overcrowded at the time of the attack.
"There were shells (striking) before midnight, It seems to have struck the paediatric ward (of Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital), We don't know how many killed or wounded but we know there were many casualties," U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said.
The military said it had not fired shells at the hospital and blamed the rebels.
On Sunday Defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella had said the military would have no option other than moving in and saving the civilians as President Mahinda Rajapaksa's call for the LTTE to let them leave under safe passage within 48 hours had lapsed.
The rebels rejected Rajapaksa's offer, saying only an internationally brokered ceasefire would resolve the conflict.
More than 500 patients were inside the hospital, one of the few still operating in an area where government forces say they are conducting the final phase of operations to overcome the Tigers.
Meanwhile concern has grown for the safety of 250,000 people aid agencies say are trapped inside the battle zone, although the government describes those numbers as overblown.
The government and human rights watchdogs have accused the Tamil Tigers of blocking civilians from leaving, forcing them to stay as human shields or using them as fighters or as labourers to build defences.
The LTTE denies the claims and says people are staying because they fear abuse by the military. The military rejects that accusation and says more than 2,000 people fled to safety behind army lines last month.
The military says the Tigers are firing artillery from populated areas inside an army-declared no-fire zone with the hope of creating a crisis to build pressure for a truce.
The Tigers in turn accuse the military of firing into the no-fire zone. The military says it has a policy of zero civilian casualties.
It is nearly impossible to verify accounts from the war zone, off-limits for journalists except on carefully guided tours by the military.