UN sending expert team to Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) âÄî The more than 100,000 civilians pouring out of Sri Lanka’s war zone have included people with untreated blast, mine and gunshot wounds âÄî prompting the U.N. chief on Thursday to order an expert team to assess the “rapidly deteriorating situation.” Doctors Without Borders warned that civilian casualties are rising in the zone where the military is trying to finish off a 25-year-old insurgency, while the government pleaded for humanitarian aid. “I saw infants with dysentery, malnourished children and women, untended wounds, and people dressed in the ragged clothing they’ve been wearing for months,” said Neil Buhne, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator, after returning from the northern town of Vauniya, where tens of thousands of people are kept in overcrowded government camps. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking to reporters in Brussels, said he would immediately send in a team of humanitarian experts to monitor the situation and “try to do whatever we can to protect the civilian population.” The government says 104,862 civilians have escaped the conflict since Monday. Some 170,000 to 180,000 civilians now live in the government camps, said Gordon Weiss, the U.N. spokesman in Colombo. An additional 15,000 to 20,000 civilians remain trapped in the coastal strip measuring just five square miles (12 square kilometers) still controlled by the ethnic separatist Tamil Tigers. Reports on life there are limited because reporters are not allowed. Weiss said no food has been delivered to the war zone since April 1. “The conditions are absolutely awful. The people are living with a shortage of food and medicines and subjected to artillery and small-arms fire,” he said. The U.N. Security Council has asked the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms and join talks to end the civil war. The U.N. also urged the government to give international aid agencies access to those affected by the fighting. Since September, only the International Committee of the Red Cross has had access. Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said the government was working to grant more access to those who had left the war zone, but that will depend on the security situation. The Red Cross evacuated 350 wounded to a hospital outside the war zone Wednesday, and another evacuation was planned for Thursday, Red Cross spokeswomen Sarasi Wijeratne said. Only two ill-equipped, makeshift hospitals function in the war zone. Dr. Thangamuttu Sathyamurthi said his staff is struggling with a medicine shortage as wounded patients continue to flood in. He said 15 people were killed Thursday when shells hit a Roman Catholic church for a second time in two days, wounding a priest whose leg had to be amputated. Both the government and the rebels deny targeting civilians, but the U.N. estimates more than 4,500 have been killed in the past three months. The Red Cross has said it has evacuated 6,000 civilians with war injuries since January. Doctors Without Borders said a rapidly growing number of badly wounded civilians have been arriving at a hospital near the war zone in the past few days. “About three-quarters of the injured coming in now have suffered from blast injuries, and the rest are gunshot wounds and mine explosions,” Dr. Paul McMaster said in an interview released by the Swiss-based aid group. He said the 450-bed hospital now has more than 1,700 patients, many living on the floors, in the hallways and outside. This week’s exodus began when the military entered a previously declared “no fire” zone along the northeastern coast, breaking through a key rebel bunker on Monday and releasing a flow of fleeing people. The government has ignored calls to stop the fighting so more civilians could leave, saying it is on the verge of crushing the insurgency. The rebels have been fighting to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have faced decades of marginalization by governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese. ___ AP writers Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo and Constant Brand in Brussels contributed to this report.