- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2007

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan military helicopters carrying six foreign envoys came under fire today from ethnic Tamil rebels, and the U.S. and Italian ambassadors were wounded. The government said it was a deliberate attack, but the rebels said they did not know diplomats were onboard.

Seven Sri Lankan security personnel also were hurt, but the envoys from Canada, France, Germany and Japan escaped without injury.

The delegation representing donor nations had traveled to the eastern city of Batticaloa to review development in the area, a hotbed of separatist violence that was hit hard by the 2004 Asian tsunami.

They were accompanied by their staff and Sri Lankan officials, some of whom had arrived earlier in another helicopter and were awaiting the ambassadors at a playground used by the military as a landing ground.

The helicopters carrying the diplomats had just landed in Batticaloa when several mortars exploded near the aircraft, said Sri Lankan government minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who was traveling with the envoys.

He said U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake and his Italian counterpart Pio Mariani “suffered slight injuries” but were “fine” now. The U.S. Embassy issued a statement saying Mr. Blake was “all right” but did not elaborate. Sri Lankan doctors said the Italian ambassador suffered shrapnel wounds to the head.

Mr. Samarasinghe’s spokesman described a close call, with people screaming and running for cover.

“This attack has been deliberately leveled against the foreign diplomats who were undertaking a humanitarian mission … I regret the situation that the foreign diplomats were subjected to in our country,” Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said while visiting China.

The rebel Tamil Tigers said they were not aware the military helicopters were carrying ambassadors and blamed the army for putting the diplomats in harm’s way. They said that the envoys landed in an area where the army has waged attacks on Tamil Tigers and that their artillery attack was intended to avert further military assaults.

“I express our regret at this unfortunate incident,” said Rasiah Ilanthirayan, the Tamil Tiger spokesman.

“Our people were not informed of the diplomatic movement … This is a criminal negligence on the part of the Sri Lankan military,” Mr. Ilanthirayan said.

“Even this morning, they had used the place to launch artillery fire at us,” he said.

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