Sri Lankan helicopter fired at from area under Tamil rebel control

A Sri Lankan government helicopter that was to carry a top Italian diplomat and other officials was fired at from an area under Tamil Tiger rebel control in a "gross violation" of the country's truce, the chief of the Norwegian-led cease-fire monitoring group said Saturday. Hagrup Haukland, who heads the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission, told the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to ensure that such incidents do not happen again.

"Such activity can lead to serious consequences jeopardizing the cease-fire," Haukland said. The air force helicopter was fired at on Wednesday as it was flying to pick up Italian Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Margherita Boniver and about 20 other Italian citizens in eastern Sri Lanka. Four rounds of gunfire hit the helicopter but it was able to return safely to its base and no one was injured. The Italians were helping with reconstruction in areas devastated by last December's tsunami.

Haukland said he met with both the rebels and government and inspected the damaged helicopter before making his ruling. The monitoring mission "concludes that as the small arms fire against the helicopter originated from an area controlled by LTTE, the LTTE must bear the responsibility for the incident," he said in a statement. "Consequently, the firing upon the unarmed Sri Lankan air force helicopter ... is ruled as a gross violation ... (of) the cease-fire agreement." There was no direct comment from the rebels on Haukland's ruling, but the group's top political leader, S.P. Thamilselvan, rejected accusations appearing in Sri Lankan media that the group was responsible for the firing and accused the military of orchestrating the event. "The LTTE rejects the press speculation and the government allegation...the incident appears to be stage-managed by the (government) forces to turn the international community and specifically Italy against the LTTE," Thamilselvan said, according to a rebel Web site.

Although the truce is largely holding, sporadic violence has continued, and tension has mounted since rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran warned on Nov. 27 that the Tigers would step up their struggle for an independent Tamil homeland next year if the government does not address their grievances. Newly elected President Mahinda Rajapakse says his government is prepared to do so, but not at the cost of dividing Sri Lanka along ethnic lines. At least 18 soldiers have died in attacks blamed on the rebels since Dec. 4, informs the AP. N.U.

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