Church near Sri Lanka front line cancels festival
Thu August 7, 2008 05:57 EDT .
- - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) A popular annual festival at a revered Roman Catholic church near the front lines of Sri Lanka - 's civil war has been canceled because the government and Tamil rebels have failed to recognize the area as a peace zone, officials said Thursday.
Meanwhile, new fighting in the restive north killed 11 Tamil Tiger rebels and a soldier, the military said.
The 17th century church in Madhu, 130 miles north of Colombo, has attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every August who come to see a statue of the Virgin Mary believed to have miraculous healing powers.
Roman Catholic Church officials said this year's festival has been canceled because of safety concerns.
``We do not expect therefore pilgrims this time at Madhu,'' the Rev. Rayappu Joseph, bishop of the northern Mannar region, said in a statement.
The rebels controlled the territory around the church, but abandoned it in April during fighting in the area. Priests fled the church during the fighting and returned only Wednesday after four months.
The priests have repeatedly appealed to both government forces and Tamil rebels to avoid clashes near the shrine.
In 1999, 44 civilians were killed when the church was hit by artillery shells. They were among 3,500 people who sought shelter in the church to escape fighting.
The military said new fighting Wednesday in the Welioya district killed 10 rebels and a soldier, while another rebel died in Mullaitivu.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan could not immediately be reached for comment and it was not possible to verify the military's claims because reporters are barred from the war zone.
Both sides often exaggerate their enemy's casualties and underreport their own losses.
The government says its troops are advancing into guerrilla territory and will soon capture their de facto state.
The Tamil Tiger rebels have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils who have faced marginalization by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.Discuss this story
Published: Thu Aug 7 06:56:42 EDT 2008