Tamil fighters on Tuesday accused the Sri Lankan military of killing more than 1,000 civilians in a government raid on their territory. The military denied the accusation and said the raid, which broke through the separatists’ defensive fortifications, allowed tens of thousands of noncombatants to flee the chaotic territory.
Each side has accused the other of endangering civilians in the long conflict, which has killed more than 4,500 people and injured more than 12,000 in the last three months alone, according to U.N. estimates. The military has accused the Tigers of using civilians as human shields, and the Tigers accuse the military of shelling civilians in the populous area.
Independent verification of either claim is impossible, because the government generally does not allow foreign journalists in the combat zone.
What is clear is that the situation is “catastrophic,” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“The situation is nothing short of catastrophic,” ICRC director of operations Pierre Kraehenbuehl said in a statement. “Ongoing fighting has killed or wounded hundreds of civilians who have only minimal access to medical care.”
On Monday, after breaking through the defensive fortification, the military offered the separatists a Tuesday deadline (6:30 GMT) to surrender or face a final assault. The deadline passed with no action from the Tigers, according to media reports.
Kraehenbuehl warned that another military offensive could lead to “a dramatic increase in civilian casualties.”
The military released a video Tuesday showing thousands of people fleeing the area, walking across a muddy field to a cluster of buildings, according to the New York Times. Gordon Weiss, the U.N. spokesman in Sri Lanka, told BBC News that it is not clear how many civilians remain, but that the U.N. has been working with a population figure of 150,000 to 200,000 in recent months.
Those who are left “don’t have any medical care available,” Red Cross spokesman Simon Schorno told the New York Times. He said that the one hospital in the area — a makeshift converted school — had been closed due to the intense fighting.
Tamil separatists have been fighting the Sri Lankan government on and off since 1983 in a bid to win a homeland in the north and the east independent of the majority Sinhalese government. In recent months, the military has backed them into a shrinking sliver of territory that now measures about 12 square miles, according to BBC News. Most analysts now believe the war is in its final stages, at least of standard warfare, according to the New York Times, because the Tigers have lost almost all their strategic bases and military capacity.
The U.N. has called for a truce to allow civilians to leave the area, but the government has not agreed, saying it is close to crushing the 26-year rebellion.