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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

U.S., Italian Ambassadors Hurt in Sri Lanka Shelling

Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and Italian ambassadors to Sri Lanka were wounded in an artillery attack by Tamil Tiger rebels in the island's east. The Tigers accused the government of putting the diplomats in danger.

Robert Blake and Pio Mariani were injured when shells fired by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam struck an air force base at Batticaloa at about 8:45 a.m. Sri Lankan time, said Flight Lieutenant Kanishka Rajapaksa, a military spokesman.

Sri Lanka's peace process collapsed last year as fighting broke out in the north and east of the country and two rounds of peace talks in Geneva failed. The LTTE last week marked the fifth anniversary of a cease-fire with the government by saying the army's new offensives will force Tamils to renew their struggle for self-determination.

The Tigers expressed ``shock and sadness'' at the wounding of the diplomats, while saying the government was to blame for their injuries because it didn't inform the rebels the envoys would be in the area.

The ``Sri Lankan government has exposed senior diplomats to danger by allowing aircraft carrying them into an area where they have declared military operations without informing the LTTE in advance,'' the rebels said in a statement, citing their military spokesman S. Ilanthirayan.

Sri Lankan military aircraft bombed ``identified LTTE bases'' in the Batticaloa district after today's attack, military spokesman Upali Rajapakse said. The targets were marked for destruction before the attack he said. A teacher was killed and another was wounded in a bomb attack the Tamil Tigers blamed on government forces, Agence France-Presse reported. The attack came hours after the shelling of the air base by the Tigers.


Blake has minor injuries, military spokesman Upali Rajapakse said. The U.S. Embassy in Colombo issued a statement saying Blake is ``all right.'' Mariani suffered shrapnel wounds to the head and was being taken to a hospital in the capital, Rajapakse said. Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman Pasquale Ferrara said via telephone that Mariani was lightly wounded. Mariani was later discharged from hospital, Ferrara said.

``This is an indication that the LTTE doesn't want any betterment for the people of the east,'' Rajapakse said. ``The visit was part of a tour to see the resettlement of civilians after the takeover of LTTE camps.''

The diplomats were accompanying Mahinda Samarasinghe, the human rights minister, on a visit to the eastern region when the shelling occurred, the military said. At least seven other people, including air force and police personnel and a schoolboy, were hurt, he added.

Army Offensive

Sri Lanka's army this week drove LTTE fighters from four bases near the northeastern port of Trincomalee, one month after capturing 12 rebel camps in the area.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa's office condemned today's attack and said terrorism must be eliminated.

``I take this opportunity to call upon the international community to support the endeavors of the government of Sri Lanka to address the scourge of terrorism and to pressure the LTTE to give up terrorism and return to the democratic fold,'' Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said in an e-mailed statement.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for two decades for a separate homeland in areas of northern and eastern Sri Lanka they control, a conflict that has killed more than 60,000 people in the South Asian island nation of 20 million. The LTTE is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S., European Union and India.
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