Fifteen Tamil civilians working for a French aid agency were found slain in northeastern Sri Lanka after fierce battles between rebels and the government in a dispute over water supplies, relief agency officials said yesterday.
Separately, suspected rebels killed Sri Lanka's chief of anti-terrorism commando training yesterday, police said, as the insurgents said they beat back a new military offensive and retained control of a reservoir supply canal, an issue that has raised fear of a full-scale war.
The aid workers -- 11 men and four women -- were doing post-tsunami relief for the French agency Action Against Hunger in the seaside town of Muttur, the scene of heavy battles that have plunged the country into one of its worst crises since its 2002 ceasefire.
The violence was sparked on July 20 when rebels halted the flow of a reservoir in the northeastern region to nearby government-held villages, in what they said was retaliation for the government reneging on a deal to boost the water supply in rebel areas.
The bodies of the aid workers were found late on Friday, Action Against Hunger official Eric Fort said. The bodies had bullet wounds and most of them were laying face down, other officials at the agency said earlier, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We are trying to get the bodies to the families, but we are not succeeding," Fort said yesterday.
He did not elaborate, and the Muttur area remained sealed off by the military, which beat back a rebel offensive to take it.
No comment was immediately available from the government on the slaying.
The country's Inspector General of Police Chandra Fernando told reporters the anti-terrorism officer, Upul Seneviratne, was killed by a suspected rebel bomb near the Buddhist holy city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka.
"By all accounts we have, he was killed by the terrorists," Fernando said.
Seneviratne was in charge of the Special Task Force, a counterterrorism commando unit.
The rebels said they had beaten back a military offensive early yesterday and retained control of the sluice gates that the insurgents closed, stopping the flow of water to 60,000 people living in government-controlled villages.
"This morning our military formation repulsed Sri Lankan government's offensive," senior rebel official, Seevarathnam Puleedevan told reporters from the rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi.
No casualty figure was immediately available from yesterday's fighting, but the pro-rebel TamilNet Web-site said 15 Tamil civilians were killed in government artillery fire on Sunday.
Military spokesman Major Upali Rajapakse rebuffed the rebel claim and said the government's military operation would take control of the water supply point yesterday.
Renewed fighting for control of the sluice gate started hours after the rebels had agreed during a meeting on Sunday with Norwegian peace envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer to reopen reservoir gates.
The rebels had said earlier their decision to release water from the reservoir could be reversed if the government resumed airstrikes or attacks.
Chief government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella accused the rebels of trying to use the reservoir issue to score political points. If the rebels were serious about opening the reservoir, they should notify the government's irrigation department and allow engineers to arrive and open the sluice gates, he said.