Sri Lankan troops in boats and helicopters battled Tamil rebels Saturday, and witnesses accused government forces of opening fire in a fishing village, killing five people — one inside a church — and wounding dozens.
The surging violence heightened fears that the island nation was moving toward a return to all-out civil war. The past several days have seen the worst violence since a 2002 cease-fire between the government and the Tamil Tigers, who control much of Sri Lanka’s north and east.
Tamil Tiger rebels said they had killed 12 soldiers; the navy said three sailors were killed and eight were missing. The military said up to 30 rebels were killed in the fighting, but rebels acknowledged only two wounded.
Saturday’s bloodshed started when rebels attacked a navy base in the northwestern fishing village of Pesalai, triggering battles that forced about 200 ethnic Tamils to seek refuge in a Roman Catholic church.
Several witnesses and an international aid worker gave near-identical accounts of how Sri Lankan forces fired indiscriminately in the church and 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, being treated for hand injuries at a hospital in Mannar, near Pesalai.
One person was killed inside the church, and four others were shot and killed while returning from fishing, witnesses said. An Associated Press reporter at the hospital counted 47 wounded villagers.
The military denied targeting civilians and blamed 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 stormed the village in 12 boats, firing grenade launchers at a police station near a navy base and the church. He said military helicopters fired on the boats, destroying eight.
The rebels’ main Web site, however, said four naval boats attacked Tiger vessels, sinking three.
Reporters were unable to reach Pesalai, which was sealed off by government roadblocks and is in a predominantly Tamil area.
An international aid worker, who said he had visited Pesalai and interviewed survivors, backed the witnesses’ accounts. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he did not want to hurt relations with the government. He also said the military had burned more than two dozen wooden fishing boats.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 in the island nation south of India to create an independent homeland for predominantly Hindu Tamils, a minority that has faced decades of discrimination by the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
The civil war killed more than 65,000 people before the 2002 cease-fire, and talks to build on the truce have faltered as sporadic shootings and bombings have grown increasingly frequent.
In the past week, the military bombarded rebel positions after a bus bombing killed 64 people.
The government blamed the Tigers for the bombing, the worst act of violence since the cease-fire. The rebels denied involvement.