The Red Cross said yesterday it would dispatch a ferry to northern Sri Lanka to evacuate foreigners amid fierce fighting, as activists expressed alarm over a Catholic priest who disappeared after witnessing disputed deaths.
The military, meanwhile said security forces and the Tamil Tiger rebel group traded fire on two fronts overnight, in the northern peninsula of Jaffna and in eastern Sri Lanka.
The ferry will pick up international aid workers and other foreign passport holders trapped in Jaffna Peninsula by a recent escalation of fighting between government troops and the rebels and may depart this morning, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.
"We are still putting together the passenger list, but the maximum number should be about 150," said Yvonne Dunton, head of the ICRC offices in the eastern Sri Lankan city of Trincomalee.
Minister of Disaster Management Mahinda Samarasinghe confirmed that his ministry was working with the ICRC to evacuate foreign passport holders.
The priest, Reverend Thiruchelvam Nihal Jim Brown, 37, was in a church on the remote, government-controlled island of Kyats -- off Jaffna Peninsula -- earlier this month when 15 people were slain in an attack that the rights group has blamed on Sri Lanka's military.
"He is the only eyewitness who can bring these facts to the world, and we fear they may do harm to him," said M.X. Karunaratnam, chairman of the Northeast Secretariat of Human Rights.
Two army camps in eastern Sri Lanka came under mortar fire from Tamil Tiger rebels on Tuesday night, and one soldier was injured, military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said.
He said there were also sporadic exchanges of artillery fire across the northern defense line in Jaffna Peninsula, adding that troops "successfully retaliated."
"They were not major attacks," Samarasinghe said.
Brown, the Catholic priest, and his assistant disappeared after saying mass on Sunday in Allaippiddy, a predominantly Tamil village located on an island just west of Jaffna, Karunaratnam said. They were last seen at a military check point in Allaippiddy.
Karunaratnam said he feared Brown was targeted because he was witness to the shelling of the church earlier this month, and because he had been active in calling for a judicial inqury.
The military says guerrillas who were hiding among civilians in the church had fired on troops as they tried to enter the building, and that the civilians were killed in the crossfire on Aug. 13.
Locals, however, say the church was hit by government artillery and rocket fire and that the military prevented the wounded from getting medical help.
Jaffna's senior police officer, Erick Perera, said an investigation was under way.
"The priest and another person have been missing since Aug. 20 while on his way to mass," he said. "No arrest has been made so far."
Meanwhile, 12 men arrested in the US as a result of an FBI sting operation have been charged with attempting to buy arms for the Tamil Tigers and trying to bribe US officials to have the group's name removed from a US government list of terrorist organizations.
Six of the men were charged in a federal court in Brooklyn on Monday. Three more arrests were made in Buffalo, New York, and one each in Connecticut, California and Seattle.