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Sri Lankan airstrike kills 55 girls

Despite international criticism that its jets killed scores of innocent teenagers, Sri Lanka’s government this week continued to defend its bombing of a known children’s home in LTTE-controlled Mullaitivu.

55 people (51 schoolgirls and four staff)were killed and over 150 wounded on August 14 when four Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Kfir jets dropped 16 bombs on the Sencholai children’s home in Vallipunam on Paranthan-Mullaithivu road.

Sri Lanka’s government said it had bombed a Tamil Tiger training camp and killed “50-60 terorrists.”

But international ceasefire monitors who visited the site said they couldn’t find “any evidence of military installations or weapons.”

The head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), Ulf Henricsson, said monitors who visited after the airstrike found at least 10 bomb craters and an unexploded bomb.

“It was not a military installation, we can see [that],” Mr. Henricsson told Sri Lanka’s MTV television.

“These children are innocent victims of violence,” said Ann M. Veneman, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director said in a statement.

UNICEF chief in Colombo JoAnna VanGerpen told AFP Tuesday: “As of this time, we don’t have any evidence that they are LTTE cadres.”

“These were children from surrounding schools in the area who were brought there for a two-day training workshop on first aid,” Ms. VanGerpen told AFP.

UNICEF said that the airstrike was a “shocking result of the rising violence,” in Sri Lanka and called on all parties to respect international humanitarian law and ensure children and the places where they live, study and play are protected from harm.

But even after the SLMM and UNICEF comments, the Sri Lankan government’s official spokesman, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, insisted the bombed site was a Tamil Tiger training camp.

The government showed reporters a video which they claimed was proof the site was a training camp. However, the video only shows vehicles, including ambulances, rushing to the site after the airstrike and figures running to help.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a coalition of the island’s four largest Tamil political parties, condemned the airstrike and appealed to the international community to restrain Sri Lanka’s armed forces.

“This attack is not merely atrocious and inhuman - it clearly has a genocidal intent. It is yet another instance of brazen state terrorism,” the TNA said.

Officials of the LTTE, briefing reporters in Kilinochchi, described the attack as “a horrible act of terror” by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

The site of the bombing had been designated a humanitarian zone and the LTTE had passed its coordinates on to the military via UNICEF, and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC).

The GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) details were passed to the Sri Lankan military during the last period of conflict, before the 2002 ceasefire, as part of efforts to ensure protection of humanitarian spaces during conflict

More than 400 schoolgirls were staying in Chencholai. The Kfirs flew to the target without circling over the attack site, civilians said.

52 wounded girls were rushed to Mullaithivu hospital. 13 were admitted at Puthukudiyiruppu hospital. At least 64 wounded were taken to Kilinochchi hospital.

Girls from various schools in the Mullaitivu district were staying overnight at the compound, attending a course in first-aid, LTTE officials in Kilinochchi said.

The LTTE Peace Secretariat urged representatives of international agencies in Kilinochchi, including UNICEF, to visit the site of the bombing.

UNICEF staff from a nearby office immediately visited the compound to assess the situation and to provide fuel and supplies for the hospital as well as counselling support for the injured students and the bereaved families.

The Grama Sevaka (a civil servant) of Vallipunam, Mr. Sivarajah, told reporters that the area around the Sencholai home was a well identified civilian zone with other residential homes, including those for the disabled.

“[The Sencholai] compound was established eight years ago and is well known to international agencies,” Mr. Sivarajah said. “Many UN seminars, including those conducted by UNICEF have been held here.”

In September 1999, SLAF jets killed 21 people in a similar daylight raid.

Commenting at the time, in 1999, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said: “We can confirm that 21 civilians were killed consequent to the air strike at Manthuvil junction …The ICRC deplores the fact that the air strikes were carried out in a civilian area.”

The ICRC is yet to comment on the Sencholai bombing.

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