COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — An overnight artillery barrage in Sri Lanka's northern war zone killed at least 257 civilians, a government doctor said Sunday, calling it the bloodiest day he had seen in the government's offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels.
Dr. V. Shanmugarajah said many more were likely killed in the attack, but they were buried where they fell instead of being brought to the makeshift hospital where he works in the war zone.
Shanmugarajah described seeing shells fly through the air, with some falling close to the hospital, sending many diving into bunkers for safety.
The rebel-linked TamilNet Web site said 2,000 civilians were feared killed and blamed the attack on Sri Lankan forces — a charge the military denied.
Human Rights Watch leveled a similar charge on Saturday, accusing the military of repeatedly hitting hospitals in the war zone with artillery and aerial attacks that killed scores of people and said commanders involved in the attacks "may be prosecuted for war crimes."
But military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said government forces were only using small arms in their effort to wipe out the Tamil Tigers. "There is no shelling taking place," he said.
The hospital struggled to cope with the 814 wounded civilians brought to the facility, Shanmugarajah said.
The government had sent medical supplies into the war zone in the past days, but a shortage of physicians, nurses and aides has made treatment difficult, he said.
"We are doing the first aid and some surgeries as quickly as we can. We are doing what is possible. The situation is overwhelming; nothing is within our control," he said.
Shanmugarajah said he sought the help of volunteers to dig graves for the 257 bodies brought to the hospital.
The government vowed two weeks ago to cease firing heavy weapons into the tiny coastal strip that remains under rebel control in an effort to avoid civilian casualties. However, medical officials in the area have reported that air strikes and artillery attacks have continued unabated, despite the presence of an estimated 50,000 ethnic Tamil civilians in the conflict zone.
Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government bars journalists and aid workers from the war zone.
U.N. figures compiled last month showed that nearly 6,500 civilians had been killed early this year as the government renewed its efforts to end its 25-year civil war with the rebels.
In recent months, government forces pushed the rebels out of the shadow state they controlled across a wide swath of the north and cornered them in a tiny spit of land along the northeast coast in an effort to end the 25-year-old civil war.
The government has brushed off international calls for a humanitarian cease-fire, saying the beleaguered rebels would use any pause in fighting to regroup.
It has accused the rebels of using civilians in the north as human shields, and Nanayakkara said the insurgents shot families who tried to escape the war zone Saturday, killing nine people.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority.
Meanwhile, pressure on reporters critical of the government's war effort has intensified.
On Sunday, Sri Lanka deported three journalists for London-based Channel 4 television news. They had been arrested the day before on charges of tarnishing the image of the security forces after they ran a report about the conditions of the war refugees and alleged sexual abuse in displacement camps. The government denies the accuracy of the report.