Sri Lankan minister blasts U.N. comments

A photo supplied by a humanitarian group on Sunday shows civilians allegedly injured in government shelling.
A U.N. spokesman will be summoned to explain his comments about a civilian "bloodbath" as a result of Sri Lanka’s war against Tamil militants, a Sri Lankan minister said Tuesday.

The United Nations’ Gordon Weiss, speaking from the capital, Colombo, told CNN on Monday that hundreds of civilians died during weekend fighting as the Sri Lanka army has surrounded rebel fighters in the country’s north, putting residents in the crossfire. “The U.N. has been warning for weeks that this precise situation would result in a bloodbath and, indeed, that seemed to have come to pass,” Weiss said. Rebels have “refused to let 50,000 to 100,000 civilians go in order to force a government assault,” he added. Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary, said U.N. officials posted to a host country cannot make such remarks. Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka’s minister of disaster management and human rights, said Weiss will be summoned to explain his remarks. Reached by CNN on Tuesday, Weiss said the Sri Lankan government had not contacted him to account for anything he had said. “Verification is, of course, the part of the problem, because humanitarian agencies are denied access to the region,” Weiss said in Monday’s interview. “Our understanding is that very heavy fighting took place over the weekend and there were many hundreds of civilian deaths and many, many more beyond that injured.” Watch frustration build at the United Nations ยป Rebel claims of civilian deaths have been considerably higher than what the United Nations has reported. Lawrence Christy, the head of the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization, said more than 3,200 civilians died in fighting from Sunday evening till Monday morning, the rebel Web site TamilNet reported.

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The Sri Lankan government has denied the allegations and accused the Tamils of “taking the whole world for a ride with its well-engineered propaganda ploys,” while turning their weapons on civilians trying to flee the combat zone. Accounts vary widely about how many have been trapped by the fighting. As recently as last week, a military spokesman put the number at 10,000 to 15,000 civilians. CNN could not independently verify the accounts, because the government does not allow the news media independent access to areas where it is fighting the rebels. Government troops have closed in on rebel forces in a shrinking section of the country’s north, and civilians have been caught in crossfire. More than 196,000 people have fled the battle zone, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Tamil Tigers rebels have been fighting for an independent state in Sri Lanka’s northeast since 1983. As many as 70,000 people have been killed since the civil war began, and the Tigers have been declared a terrorist organization by the European Union and more than 30 countries, including the United States.