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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Sri Lanka wounded tell of fierce battle, rebel fire

KANTALE, Sri Lanka, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Sometimes lying two to a bed in a crowded hospital ward, wounded Sri Lankan soldiers evacuated from the front tell of fierce fighting and heavy shelling in the darkness as they fought Tamil Tiger rebels.
The military launched a fresh offensive on Thursday to take control of the rebel-held water sluice gate that sparked the first ground fighting since a 2002 ceasefire. By mid-morning, dozens of wounded were being brought in.

"We were advancing towards the terrorist side," said private E.M. Ekanayaka. "As we did, there was mortar and artillery fire. I could not see the Tiger cadres but I could see the flash of their guns. We were 40 metres away. I was hit. At that moment, our soldiers were in control of the sluice gate."

Evacuated with wounds to his arms, he said he did not know what had happened next. By midday, the hospital in the town of Kantale, just outside the front-line and now home to more than 30,000 displaced by the fighting, said it knew of five army dead.

The sluice gate itself -- which controls the water supply to nearby government-held farmland -- was opened by the rebels earlier in the week, but the government said it was still determined to take physical control of it.

From the accounts given by the wounded, it appeared that mortar and artillery fire from Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) forces struck the troops as they moved across open ground to close on the sluice after clearing mines and booby traps.

"At five o'clock, we were close to the tank area," said Lance Corporal U. Dharmasiri, sometimes wincing in pain from a wound to his leg. "We were in a field. It was dark and we could not see anything. Then there was Tiger firing and artillery. I suddenly felt a lot of pain."

Doctors, medical staff and soldiers rushed to help the wounded out of ambulances, some of them in torn, blood-soaked uniforms. The dead arrived with less fanfare, quietly driven to the morgue in civilian trucks.

With beds being cleared of non-urgent cases to make room for more wounded as fighting continued, the hospital manager said staff had been pulled away from treating newly arrived displaced people despite rising illness in overcrowded camps.

Thousands of people are packed into schools, aid workers say there simply is not enough space to set up enough toilets and thousands -- including children -- are washing in the same narrow stream. The smell is becoming worse by the day.

"They are making some toilets but for now there is not enough," said 37-year-old mother M. Janufah in the most overcrowded camp, which may house as many as 9,000. "People are becoming sick with fever, sickness and other things."
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