Colombo: The Italian and US ambassadors to Sri Lanka were slightly hurt on 26 February when Tamil Tiger rebels shelled a delegation of diplomats led by the island’s human rights minister to the restive east, officials said.
Hospital officials in the eastern district of Batticaloa said Italian Ambassador Pio Mariani had a small piece of shrapnel lodged in his head outside his skull, but that it was a minor wound. Italian embassy officials declined to comment.
US Ambassador Robert Blake’s arm was grazed either by shrapnel or a stone, the military said, but he was not taken to hospital and his embassy said he was fine.
It is believed to be the first time Western envoys have been caught up in the conflict since the rebels began fighting for a separate state in 1983.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said they were sorry the envoys were hurt by their fire, but blamed the army for putting them in harm’s way.
The attack came as helicopters carrying Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe as well as ambassadors from the US, European Union, Japan, Germany and France landed in Batticaloa on a goodwill mission.
The minister and the other ambassadors, who were visiting the area on a needs assessment trip for thousands of refugees displaced by a new chapter in the island’s two-decade civil war, were unharmed, military and embassy officials said.
Nine security service personnel and a civilian were also hurt.
“The LTTE has once again demonstrated its terrorist nature by launching an attack on the diplomatic corps,” Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, who is on an official visit to China, said in a statement.
“This is a reminder for the international community to take effective measures to eliminate fund raising and weapons procurement by the LTTE in foreign countries.”
The UN resident coordinator as well as local heads of agencies including UNICEF and the World Food Programme were also among the delegation.
The LTTE said it had not been advised foreign diplomats were being transported into what they called a military operational area, and accused the army of firing at them first. The military said the Tigers fired mortars rounds and artillery shells.
“We are sorry that they are injured. But we did not injure them,” said Tiger military spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiraiyan. “It is the military’s fault for putting them in a war zone.
“Even this morning they fired at us and we retaliated. No one informed us the ambassadors were there,” he added.
The attack comes after months of deadly artillery exchanges, air raids, land and sea battles and ambushes. The violence has killed about 4,000 people in the past 15 months.
Sri Lanka’s stock market fell 0.53 points on news of the attack, pulling it away from new all-time highs, and analysts fear a protracted war could keep investors away from the $23 billion (Rs1,01,314 crore) economy.