Witnesses say Sri Lankan troops fired on civilians; military blames rebels
Sat June 17, 2006 13:06 EDT .
KRISHAN FRANCIS - Associated Press Writer - MANNAR, Sri Lanka - (AP) Sri Lankan troops stormed a church Saturday where 200 civilians were seeking shelter and opened fire, and then rampaged in the surrounding village, killing five people and wounding dozens more, witnesses said. The surging violence which included the arrest elsewhere of two suspected Tamil Tiger rebels, who tried to kill themselves by swallowing cyanide heightened fears that Sri Lanka - was returning to all-out civil war.
The past several days have seen the worst violence since a cease-fire was signed in 2002 by the government and the Tamil Tigers, who control much of Sri Lanka - 's north and east.
In a hospital in Mannar, near Pesalai, many injured villagers gave near-identical accounts of government security forces indiscriminately shooting into the Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic Church and then around the village.
``We were all inside the church when the navy and army broke in and opened fire. A grenade was thrown inside through a window,'' said Mariyadas Loggu, 46, who was being treated for hand injuries.
One person died in the church Saturday and four others were shot and killed while returning from fishing, Loggu and other hospitalized villagers said.
An Associated Press reporter at the Mannar hospital counted 47 Pesalai villagers injured in the violence.
The military denied targeting civilians and blamed the latest violence on the rebels, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
``The LTTE has done it. We do not target civilians,'' said Cmdr. D.K.P. Dassanayake, a navy spokesman.
He said the Tigers had stormed the village in 12 boats, firing grenade launchers at a police station near a navy base and the church.
There were conflicting claims of casualties.
The rebels' main Web site said four government naval boats attacked Tiger vessels, and that three of those were sunk, killing 12 soldiers and leaving just two rebels with minor injuries.
Navy officials said the bodies of three sailors were recovered, and eight more were missing. They said up to 30 guerrillas had been killed.
Eight Tiger boats were destroyed, he said. Three navy boats also were damaged, and the military sent in helicopters that fired on the rebel boats, Dassanayake said.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 to create an independent homeland for the country's ethnic Tamil minority, claiming discrimination by the country's majority Sinhalese.
The 2002 truce has often been violated, but the past week has seen particularly severe violence, with military airstrikes pounding rebel positions after a bus bombing killed 64 people.
The area of the latest violence is predominantly Tamil but has been largely controlled by the government.
Reporters were unable to reach Pesalai, which was sealed off by government roadblocks.
An international aid worker, who said he had visited Pesalai and interviewed survivors, backed the witnesses' accounts of the violence. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he did not want to hurt relations with the government.
Meanwhile, in Ja-Ela, a coastal area north of Colombo's main port, two men were caught by fishermen when they swam ashore after apparently setting off two explosions at sea, witness Paul Jayamaha said.
The blasts about 10 miles north of Colombo's port caused no apparent damage, and police said they were investigating what target the rebels could have been aiming for. They said they believed the men had been on a suicide mission.
Both men swallowed cyanide capsules in apparent attempts to commit suicide, but they survived and were hospitalized, then handed over to police, said Dr. R.M. Rajamanthri, the hospital's director.
The Tigers often wear cyanide capsules around their necks so they can kill themselves before being captured and interrogated.
Before the 2002 cease-fire, the civil war killed more than 65,000 people in the island nation south of India.
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Published: Sat Jun 17 13:48:57 EDT 2006