COLOMBO (AFP) â€“August 7, 2006. The bodies of 16 slain aid workers were found in Sri Lanka as new fighting between security forces and Tamil Tiger rebels dashed hope of an immediate end to the violence in the troubled nation.
The Tigers said meanwhile that at least 15 more civilians were killed in new shelling near Muttur, the flashpoint Muslim-majority town where a dispute over water supplies set off the latest round of violence two weeks ago.
As the fighting raged despite warnings of all-out war, the French aid group Action Against Hunger (Action Contre la Faim, ACF) said it found the corpses of 16 Sri Lankan members of its staff in the city.
Aid officials said they were not in a position to say how the staffers had been killed, but several witnesses who saw the bodies Sunday said they had been shot dead.
Government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) blamed each other for the killings.
Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said the government would make it a "very high priority" to investigate.
"We can`t come to conclusions right now," he told AFP on Monday. "I can assure a clean and an independent investigation."
At least 440 people have been killed in the latest violence, which erupted when the guerrillas blocked a water gate on July 26 that cut off supplies to some 15,000 farming families downstream.
The LTTE offered to re-open the gate on Sunday but the peace deal was rejected by the government, which replied with more attacks in a conflict that has lasted around three decades and claimed an estimated 60,000 lives so far.
They said in a statement that 15 more civilians had been killed Monday when security forces from the government shelled an LTTE-run section of Muttur.
"Many more were injured and a large number of people were displaced," they said.
The guerrillas warned Sunday that future air and artillery attacks would be regarded as a "declaration of war."
However a rebel official, S. Puleedevan, said shortly after another round of shelling on Sunday evening that they had not retaliated because peace-broker Norway was still trying to keep the tattered 2002 ceasefire in place.
The head of the international truce monitors complained that he and other monitors were travelling with Tiger rebels Sunday to open the sluice gates when the military shelled the area and sent them scurrying for cover.
Ulf Henricsson said the Maavilaru dam had been just minutes away from being reopened when the bombardment started.
"War instead of water. Not a good idea, not a good solution," Henricsson told the BBC in comments reported Monday.
Samarasinghe, the human rights minister, said he was hoping for a report on the situation in Muttur from the International Committee of the Red Cross, but the organisation said it had not been able to get to the area.
"We still have not been able to have access to Muttur," said ICRC spokesman Sukumar Rockwood. "We have asked guarantees of safety for our staff from both sides, and we are still awaiting a response."
He said a priority would be to evacuate the wounded and remove unclaimed bodies.
But officials said ACF staff had had a safe corridor to recover the bodies of its workers from Muttur and bring them to the main hospital at Trincomalee, the capital of the restive northeastern province.
In other violence a top police commando officer was killed in a powerful pre-dawn land mine blast in the central district of Kandy, police said. They blamed the Tamil Tigers.