06/19/2006, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Catholic church attacked; bishop accuses navy

by Danielle Vella

On Saturday, grenades damaged the parish church of Pesalai, which was full of civilians in search of refuge from violence in the area. A woman was killed. The military have accused the Tamil Tigers but the bishop and local Catholics said it was Navy men, "rampaging through the area".

Colombo (AsiaNews) – The Sri Lankan Navy has been widely blamed for an attack on the parish church of a northern coastal village on 17 June, which struck civilians seeking refuge from escalated violence between the island's warring parties.

A 70-year-old woman was killed and more than 40 people were injured in the early morning attack by a handful of troopers, who lobbed one or more grenades into Our Lady of Victory Church in Pesalai village in Mannar district.

Army spokesmen blamed the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for the attack on the Tamil village but the Bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph, said no LTTE cadres were present when the Navy troopers "ran amok in Pesalai".

A priest from the diocese told AsiaNews: "From what I heard from reliable sources, the hand grenade lobbed inside the church was indeed thrown by a member of the navy."

Earlier that same morning, heavy fighting broke out in the sea close to Pesalai between the Navy and LTTE; 30 combatants were reportedly killed. The priest said: "The fight was going on in the sea, but the displaced people were attacked in the church, which is near the sea, but not on the seashore."

The attack on the church appears to have been part of a rampage by Navy troops in Pesalai and surrounding areas, in which four fishermen were shot through the mouth and killed on the beach and fisher families' huts and boats were destroyed.

Recently, Pesalai residents and people displaced from elsewhere have been seeking shelter in the parish church, especially at night, because of increasing violence. On 15 June, in response to an attack – suspected to be by the LTTE – on the Pesalai police station, the police fired rocket propelled grenades directed at the thickly populated village.

One of the houses struck by the grenades belonged to the family of Fr Jeyabalan Croos, a priest of Mannar diocese. He told AsiaNews: "A 'shell' landed on the kitchen of my family's house. They are all very scared and went to the church to spend the night. Why are innocent people victimised for the atrocities of some militants?"

Fr Croos is the parish priest of Illupaikulam in Vavuniya district, which borders Anuradhapura district, where 64 Sinhalese civilians were killed on 15 June in the most deadly attack since the ceasefire was signed in 2002. The LTTE have been blamed for the claymore mine attack but they deny responsibility.

Fr Croos said: "My parish is near Sinhalese villages. So even here, people do not want to stay at home during the night. They are afraid of possible reprisals from the nearby villagers. So almost all the village has come to sleep in the church."

The upsurge in violence over the weekend has fuelled fears that all-out war is now imminent. By tomorrow, the LTTE must let the Norwegian mediators know about their commitment to the peace process. Whatever their answer will be, no one is holding out much hope. Fr Croos added: "I am afraid that the war will start sooner than we expected. God save us!"

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