Italian envoy escaped death by a whisker
For Italy’s Ambassador Pio Mariani, the difference between life and death was a centimeter or less.
Hit on the head with a shrapnel injury following Tiger guerrilla mortar attacks at the Weber Stadium on Tuesday, Mr. Mariani had his wound dressed in Batticaloa. There was no CT scanner to examine whether there was any further danger.
Just as the Mi-17 helicopter bringing the entourage of diplomats, UN and Government officials landed at the Air Force Grounds, he was rushed to the National Hospital. There doctors put him through a scan. The findings shook Mr. Mariani. “If the shrapnel went a vee vee bit more, it would have entered his skull,” a surgeon told him. Later, he underwent a 45-minute long operation to remove a piece of shrapnel embedded in the head.
The Italian Government is not so pleased with the incident. It has sought a full report. “The Sri Lankan Government has promised a report within the next four days,” he told The Sunday Times.
Despite the incident, Mr. Mariani had not lost his sense of humour. “At first I thought there was a guard of honour for us when there was a loud noise. Then I learnt mortars were falling. Security personnel were running here and there. There was virtual mayhem,” he said.
“The first thing I did was to telephone my wife Patricia. I told her the good news that I have survived an attack. I wanted her to telephone my sons Stefano (22) and Giorgio (19) who are studying in London,” he said.
He said, “After I was hurt, the German Ambassador and I rushed to an army jeep and told them to get us to theclosest hospital. We were soon driven to an army camp and from there transferred to hospital which was ready to accept the casualties. There were other casualties as well by that time in hospital", he said. “When the incident took place the injury seemed to be a scratch, but it is now that the fright comes in that when you realize that you have been very close to a tragedy”, he said.
Ambassador Maraini said he and his counterparts could not imagine that they were under attack as they were on a humanitarian mission to see how they could help the affected people.
He said he was sure that the LTTE was aware of their visit as representatives of the civil society were informed about an impending meeting with the diplomats and it was not a secret mission.
He said, however the Italian government was prompted to call for a clarification from the Sri Lankan government about the circumstances of the attack as under international conventions it is the responsibility of the host country to provide security for diplomats.
“We want this clarified, particularly in the light of reports that before the landing (of the helicopter) there was an exchange of mortar fire. It would have been prudent to divert the helicopter elsewhere if that was correct,” Ambssador Mariani said.
“It is worrisome that a humanitarian delegation led by a government minister is caught in the crossfire. This type of field trip should take place in safety. Why was the visit given the go ahead, if security was not clear,” he questioned.
“In a predicament all have been lucky. If the shell had landed in the middle of the group there would have been lot of victims and it could have turned to be a great tragedy,” the Ambassdor said.
He said that the LTTE’s expression of regret could not be accepted adding that “we cannot give credit to that apology”.
“We are bitter. We were there to help people, mostly Tamils…. Like the poor population we too were caught in the fighting,” he said.
He said that the incident further emphasizes that a fresh move should be made to renew negotiations.“A fresh start should be made to take confidence building measures. I am always optimistic, though the reality is not optimistic. By not talking to each other the situation gets worse,” Mr. Mariani said.
He expressed confidence that the All Party Conference proposals would address the grievances of the Tamils making it easier for them to detach themselves from the LTTE.
“It is difficult to think that the LTTE will accept any kind of solution, but if there is a reasonable solution the Tamil people will start making their voice heard. Attempts should be made to convince the most reasonable sector of the LTTE. There are some who can be convinced. There are some hardliners who never accept anything less than terrorism,” he said.
Mr. Mariani said Tuesday’s incident would not deter the efforts of the international community to provide humanitarian assistance to the affected areas.
He is ready to re-visit the affected areas provided the “government assures safe security conditions”.