ERAVUR, SRI LANKA, AUG. 12 -- Gunmen said to be Tamil separatist guerillas rampaged through five fishing villages Saturday night, killing Moslems in the street with machine-gun fire and machetes, military officials reported today. They said at least 119 people were slain.
A Tamil politician said the attacks were in retaliation for the killing of 33 Tamil villagers by Moslems earlier Saturday. But a spokesman for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam guerrilla group denied responsibility for the killings.
The killings were the latest in a round of intensifying ethnic violence that pits Tamil separatists against Sri Lanka's Sinhalese-dominated government and Sinhalese and Moslem civilians. Although the Moslems, whose ethnic group is historically known as the Ceylon Moors, claim neutrality in the war, the government says Tamils suspect them of siding with the army.
Tamils, who are predominantly Hindu, account for 18 percent of Sri Lanka's 16 million people. Sinhalese, overwhelmingly Buddhist, comprise 75 percent, and Moslems 7 percent.
At least 450 villagers -- 305 Moslems, 85 Tamils and 60 Sinhalese -- have been killed on the island nation's east coast in the past nine days, according to military officials and politicians.
In Eravur, one of the villages hit in Saturday night's attack, puddles of blood marked the sidewalks. Women implored visitors to help keep them safe, and young men surrounded army officers and demanded weapons.
"They have killed everybody," one weeping woman told a delegation of Moslem politicians and soldiers. "There is no one to look after us. Please don't leave."
Led by Moslem religious leaders, villagers gathered up corpses in trucks for a mass burial. Residents and military officials today said at least 119 people were killed in the five villages and 40 were injured.
Brigadier Upali Seneviratne, the top army officer in the province, said at least 40 Tamil gunmen attacked the villages. "They broke into three groups and shot at everybody in sight," he said. The dead included 29 women and 31 children, one of them a 9-day-old girl, he said.
After a 90-minute raid on Eravur, the gunmen moved to adjacent villages, military officials said. The villages are clustered north of Batticaloa on the east coast, about 125 miles east of Colombo.
On Aug. 3, gunmen raided another eastern village and massacred 140 Moslems in two mosques. The incident set off a chain of killings.
According to Mahalingam Savajilingam, a leader of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization, a former guerrilla group that gave up arms for politics, Saturday night's killings were carried out by the Tamil Tigers after 33 Tamils at a refugee camp, including eight hospital patients, were killed by Moslems using government-supplied weapons.
The Tamil Tigers, the militia fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east, said in denying the charges that the killings were carried out by government agents to discredit the rebel organization.