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Ambassadors injured in Sri Lanka rebel attack

Story Highlights

NEW: German ambassador joins list of diplomats injured in attack
• Italian ambassador airlifted to nearby hospital with "minor head injury"
• U.S. ambassador received "very minor injuries" to his back
• UNHCR plane lightly damaged in separate attack at about the same time

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (CNN) -- The U.S., Italian and German ambassadors to Sri Lanka received minor injuries when a helicopter they were traveling in came under fire on Tuesday, officials said.

Twelve people were hurt in the attack, blamed on Tamil Tiger rebels, as the aircraft was coming in to land in the eastern city of Batticaloa.

Italian ambassador Pio Mariani suffered a "minor head injury," sources said. He was airlifted to a nearby hospital.

U.S. ambassador Robert Blake and German envoy Jurgen Weerth also received minor injuries. Other casualties in the attack included seven police and two air force personnel.

The helicopter was also carrying the envoys of Canada, France, Germany, Japan and a British diplomat. The group had been traveling to a meeting about development in an area known as a hotbed of separatist violence.

The rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam admitted responsibility for the attack, but expressed "shock and sadness" that the government had exposed the envoys to potential conflict.

"Simple diplomacy could have avoided the unfortunate incident and condemned the childish action of the Sri Lankan military," Tamil military spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan said in a statement.

The government condemned the incident. "The LTTE has once again demonstrated its terrorist nature by launching an attack on the diplomatic corps," said Foreign Affairs Minister Rohitha Bogollagama.

The rebels have been fighting for more than two decades for a separate homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority in the north and east of the South Asian island.

A cease-fire with government forces was declared in 2002, but a Norway-brokered peace agreement has since faltered, resulting in 65,000 deaths.

Air force sources said Tuesday's attacks happened as the first of three helicopters ferrying the diplomats and U.N. agency heads to the region had just landed at a stadium. The two other helicopters were diverted and did not land at the site.

In an almost simultaneous attack, rebels also directed fire at a nearby air base where a plane belonging to the U.N. refugee agency had just landed, military sources said. The aircraft was slightly damaged but managed to take off while under attack.

CNN's Iqbal Athas contributed to this story.

Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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