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Page last updated at 11:58 GMT, Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Sri Lanka children 'being killed'

Child in north-east Sri Lanka
Aid agencies worry that children are increasingly coming under fire

The conflict in Sri Lanka has killed hundreds of children and left many more injured, the United Nations' children's agency, Unicef, has said.

Moreover, thousands of children are at risk because of "a critical lack of food, water and medicines", the agency says.

Intense fighting is going on between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels in north-eastern Sri Lanka.

The Tigers have been driven from most of the territory they held by the army.

They are now cornered in a small patch of jungle and coastal area in Mullaitivu district.

"Children and their families caught in the conflict zone are at risk of dying from disease and malnutrition," Unicef executive director Ann Veneman said in a statement.

"Regular, safe access for humanitarian agencies is urgently required, so that life-saving supplies can be provided, and civilians must be allowed to move to safe areas where essential humanitarian support is more readily available.

Sri Lankan troops in Mullaitivu district in a photo released by the defence ministry
The army says it close to delivering a 'final blow'

"The rights of children caught in the conflict must be fully respected and every effort should be taken to prevent civilian casualties," Ms Veneman said.

A statement released by the aid agency, Care International, said that one of its humanitarian workers was killed on Tuesday in the military-designated "safe zone" in the conflict zone which is not supposed to come under fire.

In the latest fighting, the army said it had killed at least 18 Tamil Tigers, while the pro-rebel TamilNet website said that 52 civilians had been killed in army shelling in the "safe zone".

Quoting rebel sources, TamilNet also says that hundreds of Sri Lankan soldiers have recently been killed.

Independent journalists are not allowed by the government into the war zone, so it is impossible to verify the claims of either side.

The army says that the rebels are now cornered inside a 30 sq km (12 sq mile) area of the north-east, and that it is on the verge of delivering a "final blow" to their 25-year separatist rebellion.

But tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped inside rebel territory, most of them in a narrow coastal strip which forms the "safe zone".

Government health officials in the north-east say that hundreds of deaths due to wounds and serious diseases could be prevented if more medical supplies and facilities were made available.

A letter to the health ministry written by the regional health directors for Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts says that they have been forced to move their treatment centres because the Tamil Tigers are making the civilian population flee with them whenever the army advances.

"More than 500 civilian deaths, either on or after admission, have been registered at the hospitals and thousands of civilian deaths could have gone unrecorded as they were not brought to the hospitals," the letter said.

The health ministry confirmed the letter's authenticity to the Reuters news agency and conceded that there may be a drugs shortage because of the difficulty of bringing in supplies by a system of ferries and smaller boats.

The Tamil Tigers have fought for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority since 1983.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the war, but that figure could now be far higher because of intensified fighting in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that the condition for civilians in the north was "deteriorating by the day".

"The area is affected by shelling every day, and the cramped conditions and the lack of water and proper sanitation are putting people at risk," an ICRC statement said.

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