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U.S., Italian ambassadors 'slightly injured' in mortar attack in Sri Lanka

U.S., Italian ambassadors 'slightly injured' in mortar attack in Sri Lanka

Rebels fired on Sri Lankan military helicopters carrying six foreign envoys Tuesday, slightly wounding the U.S. and Italian ambassadors in what officials described as a close call that sent people screaming and running for cover.
The government called the incident a deliberate attack, but the rebels said they did not know diplomats were on board.
Seven Sri Lankan security personnel also were 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 Amb. Jeurgen Weerth told The Associated Press after returning to Colombo, the capital.
The delegation representing donor nations, accompanied by their staff and Sri Lankan officials, was traveling 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.
The helicopters carrying them had just touched down at a playground used by the military as a landing ground in Batticaloa when several mortar shells exploded near the aircraft, said Sri Lankan government minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who was traveling with the group.
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."
Samarasinghe said U.S. Amb. Robert Blake and his Italian counterpart, Pio Mariani, "suffered slight injuries" but were fine now.
The U.S. Embassy issued a statement saying 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 ... I regret the situation that the foreign diplomats were subjected to in our country," Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama told The Associated Press 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 launched 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," Ilanthirayan said.
"Even this morning they had used the place to launch artillery fire at us," he said.
The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for the country's 3.1 million ethnic Tamils.
A Norwegian-brokered 2002 cease-fire has come under serious threat as more than 3,600 fighters and civilians were killed in renewed fighting in 2006.
Before the cease-fire, the conflict claimed the lives of about 65,000 people and displaced another 1.6 million.
The United States and European Union consider the Tamil Tigers a terrorist group.
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Associated Press writers Bharatha Mallawarachi and Dilip Ganguly contributed to this report.