The UN said yesterday it was "deeply concerned" about the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas in Sri Lanka's east where tens of thousands of civilians, mostly Tamils, are caught in fighting.
An estimated 35,000 civilians are trapped in eastern Batticaloa, as the Sri Lankan military and the rebels fight over territory. On Monday, the military said a fierce daylong artillery and mortar battle in the area killed 24 soldiers and 40 rebels.
"The critical need of the moment is the protection of these desperate civilians,'' the world body said in a statement. "The United Nations is deeply concerned about indiscriminate shelling of civilian residential areas, leading to death, injuries and evacuation of communities out of danger zones."
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it evacuated 30 wounded civilians, including seven children, from Vaharai village, the worst hit, in Batticaloa district to hospitals in safer areas on Monday.
Civilian casualties have mounted in recent clashes between government forces and guerrillas from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), while both sides have denied responsibility.
The government's Media Center for National Security accused rebels of moving their heavy guns into areas where hundreds of civilians are forcibly detained by insurgents.
"Since last Thursday, the LTTE was trying to provoke the army to retaliate toward their gun positions whilst detaining thousands of civilians close to them,'' the media center said, adding that the army had deployed ground forces instead of using artillery attacks to prevent civilian casualties.
Separately yesterday, a roadside bomb blast blamed on the rebels killed one soldier and wounded two in Mannar in northwestern Sri Lanka, an officer at the media center for national security said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
In the Tamil-dominated Jaffna Peninsula, unidentified gunmen shot and killed a hospital worker, hospital official A. Pathmanathan said.
A sharp spike in violence this year has killed at least 3,500 fighters and civilians, leaving a 2002 cease-fire in effect only on paper.