- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2007

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Rebels fired on Sri Lankan military helicopters carrying six foreign envoys yesterday, slightly wounding the American and Italian ambassadors and sending the group running for cover.

The government said it was a deliberate attack, but the rebels said they did not know diplomats were on board.

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

“We were extremely lucky to be able to escape. I could see the grenades or something like that falling and exploding,” German Ambassador Jeurgen Weerth said after returning to Colombo, the capital.

The delegation, representing donor nations, accompanied by its staff and Sri Lankan officials, was traveling to the eastern city of Batticaloa to review development in the area, a center of separatist violence that was hit hard by the 2004 Asian tsunami.

The helicopters carrying them had just touched down at a playground used by the military as a landing site in Batticaloa when several mortar shells exploded near the aircraft, said Mahinda Samarasinghe, a Sri Lankan government minister traveling with the group.

Mr. Samarasinghe’s press officer, Lal Sarath Kumara, who arrived in another helicopter shortly before the attack, said everyone hit the ground when the shells started coming in, and then ran for cover.

“Everyone ran in various directions. There was huge chaos there, and all the people were in fear. People were screaming and running.”

He estimated six shells hit the area, and added, “We escaped narrowly.”

Mr. Samarasinghe said U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake and his Italian counterpart, Pio Mariani, “suffered slight injuries,” but were fine.

The U.S. Embassy issued a statement saying Mr. Blake was “all right,” but did not elaborate. Sri Lankan doctors said the Italian ambassador was treated for a shrapnel injury to the head and discharged less than two hours later.

Both men managed to take part in at least some of their scheduled meetings before heading back to Colombo.

“This attack has been deliberately leveled against the foreign diplomats who were undertaking a humanitarian mission,” Sri Lankan 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 the envoys landed in an area where the army has attacked 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.”

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for the country’s 3.1 million ethnic Tamils.

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