COLOMBO (AFP) - A Sri Lankan legislator allied with Tamil rebels was gunned down during Christmas Mass, the latest in a series of bloody attacks that international mediators fear could signal a return to war.
The government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) blamed each other for the killing at St. Mary`s church in Batticaloa, 303 kilometres (190 miles) east of Colombo, before a packed Christmas congregation.
President Mahinda Rajapakse`s government condemned the assassination and said stepped-up security was being offered to other minority legislators following the point-blank shooting.
"The president has offered to provide additional security to (Tamil) members of parliament in consultation with them," the government said in a statement which also accused the Tigers of being behind the murder on Sunday.
Tamil MP Joseph Pararajasingham, 71, had just received Holy Communion and was returning to his pew when he was shot in the chest, a witness said.
"There was panic after the shots were fired in front of a congregation of hundreds," the witness who declined to be named said by telephone. "People generally know who did it but they are afraid to talk."
A local police official said there could have been more than one gunmen and there was an exchange of fire with the guards of the VIP.
Pararajasingham`s wife Sugunam suffered gunshot injuries, police said.
Eight other people were also wounded, including a Catholic nun, and were admitted to the main hospital in Batticaloa.
In the island`s north suspected Tiger rebels lobbed grenades at two army checkpoints Sunday and wounded eight soldiers, a local military official said.
The bloodletting came hours after Sri Lanka`s international backers expressed "deep concern" over the escalation of violence that has claimed the lives of more than 60 people this month alone.
"Sri Lanka faces a crucial choice today between mounting violence and reinvigorating peace," the quartet known as the Co-Chairs said in a statement Saturday after meeting with Tiger rebels.
"The Sri Lankan people clearly want peace -- it would be a tragic step backwards if their desire was not heeded."
Diplomats from the Co-Chairs -- the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway -- said there was an urgent need for the LTTE to agree to hold talks on salvaging the troubled truce in force since February 2002.
The Tigers said the slaying had been "well-planned" and involved a hardline party of Buddhist monks opposed to any concessions to minority Tamils.
"The chauvinistic forces have taken away this patriot who has worked for the Tamil nation`s liberation and promotion of human rights," they said in a statement.
Sunday`s killing is the most high-profile since Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was gunned down by a suspected Tiger rebel in Colombo on August 12.
The assassinations underline a worsening security situation in Sri Lanka`s troubled north and east amid fears of a return to civil war.
Five people were killed in clashes on Saturday, a day after 18 others, including 15 sailors, died in suspected Tamil rebel attacks.
Pararajasingham, a key figure in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) party, entered parliament in 1990 replacing Sam Thambimuttu, who was killed by suspected Tiger rebels.
Last year the TNA aligned itself with the LTTE. With 22 seats in the national parliament, the party is virtually a proxy of the guerrillas.
A split in the LTTE in March 2004 saw a faction led by a regional Tiger commander, V. Muralitharan, better known as Karuna, target pro-Tiger activists in the embattled eastern region.
More than 60,000 people have died in sectarian violence since 1972.