The U.S. and Italian ambassadors to Sri Lanka were wounded when their helicopters came under fire Tuesday from ethnic Tamil rebels who said they mistook them for a military target.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake and his Italian counterpart Pio Mariani had just landed in the eastern city of Batticaloa when several mortars exploded near their aircraft, said Sri Lankan government minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who was traveling with the diplomats.
He said the ambassadors both “suffered slight injuries” but were “fine” now. Seven Sri Lankan security personnel also were wounded, he said.
The U.S. Embassy issued a statement saying Blake was “alright.” Sri Lankan doctors said the Italian ambassador suffered shrapnel wounds to the head.
Samarasinghe’s spokesman described a close call, with people screaming and running for their lives.
Rebels blame Sri Lankan military
The rebel Tamil Tigers said they were not aware the helicopters were carrying ambassadors and blamed the military for putting the diplomats in harm’s way. They said the ambassadors landed in an area where the army has launched attacks on Tamil Tigers and that rebel fighters had attacked the helicopters fearing further military assaults.
“I express our regret at this unfortunate incident,” said Rasiah Ilanthirayan, the Tamil Tiger spokesman.
“We are shocked at how the Sri Lankan state childishly exposed very high-level diplomats,” he said.
“Our people were not informed of the diplomatic movement... This is a criminal negligence on the part of the Sri Lankan military,” Ilanthirayan said.
“Even this morning they had used the place to launch artillery fire at us,” he said.
The two ambassadors, accompanied by their staff and Sri Lankan officials, had traveled to Batticaloa aboard two helicopters to attend a meeting about development of the area, a hotbed of separatist violence.
‘We escaped narrowly’
Samarasinghe’s press officer, Lal Sarath Kumara, was in the first helicopter to land. He said the attack started shortly after the aircraft carrying the diplomats and other senior officials touched down in a playground.
“We escaped narrowly,” Kumara said, adding that he believed at least six shells hit the area.
“Everyone ran in various directions. There was huge chaos there and all the people were in fear. People were screaming and running.”
Lt. Col. Upali Rajapakse, a senior officer in the Defense Ministry’s information section, said the diplomats already had gotten out of the helicopters when the mortars were fired.
Italian Ambassador Mariani was treated for a shrapnel injury to the head and discharged less than two hours later, said Dr. K. Muruganandan of Batticaloa government hospital.
The rebels began their insurgency against Sri Lankan security forces in 1983, demanding a separate homeland for the island nation’s 3.1 million ethnic Tamil minority. About 68,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
The government says it is willing to give autonomy to areas where Tamils are in the majority, but the rebels insist on sweeping changes that Colombo says would infringe on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.
Despite the cease-fire, military offensives in rebel-held territory in the north and northeast continue, while the rebels have been blamed for near-daily bombings and other attacks against security forces.
The United States and European Union countries consider the Tamil Tigers a terrorist group.