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

The U.S. and Italian ambassadors to Sri Lanka were slightly injured when their helicopter was targeted by mortars fired by Tamil rebels Tuesday, officials said.

The helicopter used by U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake, his Italian counterpart, Pio Mariani and a number of other envoys had just landed in Batticaloa district when several mortars landed close to the aircraft, said Sri Lankan government minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who accompanied them.

"Both the ambassadors are fine and they have suffered slight injuries," Samarasinghe said.

A small piece of shrapnel was removed from Mariani's head and he was later discharged, said Dr. K. Muruganandan of Batticaloa's government hospital.

Envoys of Canada, France, Germany, Japan and a British diplomat accompanied by staff and Sri Lankan officials were also traveling in the helicopter to attend a meeting about development in the area, a hotbed of separatist violence. They were unhurt. There were no reports of injuries among officials traveling with them in two separate helicopters.

The ambassadors held the scheduled meetings and arrived back in the capital Colombo later in the day.

The Tamil Tigers admitted firing the mortars, but blamed the Sri Lankan military.

"I express our regret at this unfortunate incident," Rasiah Ilanthirayan, the spokesman for the Tamil Tiger rebels, said from the insurgent headquarters in Kilinochchi.

He said the Sri Lankan army has used the same landing area to launch attacks on Tamil targets, and rebel fighters attacked the diplomats' helicopter, fearing further military assaults.

"Even this morning they had used the place to launch artillery fire at us," he said. "Our people were not informed of the diplomatic movement .... This is a criminal negligence on the part of the Sri Lankan military."

Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama told The Associated Press as he was traveling in China, "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 Lanka "reiterates its position on the need to eliminate terrorism in all its forms," Bogollagama said in a statement later. "I take this opportunity to call upon the international community to support the endeavors of the Government of Sri Lanka to address the scourge of terrorism ..." he added.

Samarasinghe's press officer, Lal Sarath Kumara, who was in the first helicopter to land, said the attack started shortly after his aircraft touched down in a deserted playground and its occupants disembarked.

"We escaped narrowly," Kumara said, adding everyone initially hit the ground after the attack began before taking cover.

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

Kumara said he believed at least six shells hit the area, reports AP.

The U.S. Embassy in a statement said Ambassador Blake was "all right," without providing further details.

Seven Sri Lankan security personnel on the ground were wounded, said Lt. Col. Upali Rajapakse, a senior officer the Defense Ministry's information section.

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