COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Suspected Tamil Tiger rebels fatally shot four ethnic Sinhalese on Thursday, Sri Lankan officials said, a day after the military said it bombed the Tigers' naval headquarters as violence escalated in the island country.
The killings are ``the work of the LTTE terrorists to scare the farmers and other residents of the area'' in eastern Sri Lanka, said military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe, using the acronym for the Tigers' official name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
No apparent motive was immediately known. The ethnic Tamil rebels typically resist having Sinhalese living near areas they control.
The Tigers have fought the government since 1983 to create an independent homeland for the country's 3.1 million Tamils, who have faced decades of discrimination by the Sinhalese. The civil war killed at least 65,000 people before a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire in 2002.
The cease-fire temporarily halted the fighting, but more than 4,000 people have died since late 2005, when violence flared again. Still, both sides still claim to be abiding by the truce.
Local journalist Gamini Obesekera, citing witnesses, said the four slain Sinhalese had come to area to buy newly harvested rice from farmers when 20 to 25 rebels emerged from the jungle, shot the victims and fled.
Obesekera rejected Samarasinghe's claim that the four dead were farmers.
Also Thursday, Samarasinghe said police found a powerful unexploded bomb hidden inside a shop near the capital, Colombo.
He said that five men were arrested after the 10-kilogram (22-pound) bomb was found. Samarasinghe accused the Tigers of hiding the bomb to use later. There was no immediate comment from the rebels.
Separately, Sri Lanka's government insisted Thursday that its air force bombed the Tigers' naval headquarters, after the insurgents denied their base was hit and said the bombs struck civilian areas.
Military officials said air force fighter jets pounded the insurgents' naval headquarters in northern Sri Lanka on Wednesday, destroying fuel reserves and igniting a large blaze amid sharply escalating violence.
``We have pictures taken by unmanned aerial vehicle, our ground intelligence and statements of former Tigers, who surrendered to us, that this was indeed the headquarters of the Sea Tigers,'' Samarasinghe said.
The rebels call their naval arm the ``Sea Tigers,'' a group known for ramming explosive-laden boats into Sri Lankan navy craft in suicide attacks.
Samarasinghe said Wednesday's air raid was ordered after intelligence had been collected on the area.
The rebels had denied the base was bombed, saying government warplanes struck civilian areas, killing two people and wounding four more.
There was no way to independently confirm what happened Wednesday in Puthukkudiyiruppu, where the base is located, in a Tiger-controlled area that is off-limits to outsiders.
If the government's claims about the air raid are true, it would be a major blow to the guerrillas, who rely on their navy to transport arms, medicine and fuel.
Violence in Sri Lanka has risen dramatically in recent days, with the military killing 23 rebels in the east on Monday.
A recent bus bombing at a military checkpoint killed 16 people and wounded 25, and the rebels attacked an air force base near the capital in their first-ever air raid days ago.