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Monday, August 14, 2006

Sri Lanka: Bombed school was rebel base

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Fighting between the government and Tamil insurgents and a suicide bombing killed dozens Monday, including youths at what the rebels said was a school and the government insisted was an insurgent base.

The clashes along the frontiers dividing government and rebel territory in the north and east, and the blast in Colombo appeared to dash hope for a quick end to fighting that has worsened over the past month, undermining an already shaky cease-fire.

The 2002 truce was intended to halt more than two decades of bloodshed between the government, dominated by Sri Lanka's 14 million Sinhalese, and the rebels, who have been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland for the country's 3.2 million Tamils.

In fighting Monday, Sri Lankan air force jets bombed the northeastern Mullaitivu district, deep inside rebel territory.

The pro-rebel TamilNet Web site, citing officials from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, reported that 61 girls who were studying there were killed and another 60 were injured.

However, Air Force spokesman Group Capt. Ajantha Silva said the military had proof that the site was a rebel base.

An official from a Nordic cease-fire monitoring team, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said the site appeared to be a home for 17- to 20-year-old students.

The official said a monitor who visited the site saw 19 bodies at a nearby hospital but believed more were killed.

Hours later in Colombo, a suicide bomber in an auto rickshaw blew himself up as a car carrying Pakistan's high commissioner, Basir Ali Mohmand, passed along a crowded road. At least seven people were killed, including four army commandos guarding the envoy, the government said. Another 10 people were wounded in the bombing less than a mile from the residence of President Mahinda Rajapakse.

But the diplomat, who was believed to be the target of the blast, escaped unhurt. Pakistan is a major supplier of arms to Sri Lanka's military, and the Tigers were suspected in the attack.

Tamil Tiger officials were not immediately available to comment, although in recent months they have often kept quiet after such attacks, neither confirming nor denying involvement.

Pakistan said it was the first attack on any of its diplomats in Sri Lanka.

A day earlier, at least 15 people died in fighting around the St. Philip Neri Church in Allaiiddy, a predominantly Tamil village located on an island just west of the Jaffna Peninsula. The island, like the peninsula, is held by the government.

TamilNet said the dead were civilians killed when government artillery and rocket fire hit the church, where they were sheltering. While TamilNet stopped short of saying government forces intentionally targeted the church, it alleged that no help was sent to the wounded for hours.

But the military countered that guerrillas in the church fired on troops as they tried to enter the building, and that the civilians were killed in the fighting.

The latest round of fighting began in late July over a rebel-controlled water supply near the eastern port of Trincomalee, and had in recent days spread to other parts of the east and the Jaffna Peninsula, the scene of intense fighting during Sri Lanka's two-decade-long civil war.

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