As fighting rages in Sri Lanka's north, a famous statue of the Virgin Mary has been removed from a Catholic shrine and taken to a safer place - the first time in 400 years that it has moved.
The statue, known as 'Our Lady of Madhu', was removed on Thursday night as incessant shelling continued in the northwest district of Mannar where government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels have been fighting for the last 15 months.
"We have decided to remove our lady from the shrine and are taking her to a safer location for safety reasons as there has been intense shelling in the area from both sides," the Bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph said.
The Madhu church is a well-known pilgrimage site for Catholics and the bishop said he had repeatedly appealed to both sides to respect the area as a no-war zone.
"But the situation has now come for 'Our lady of Madhu' to vacate the area along with the people for the first time in more than 400 years.
"The statue has now been taken further north into the rebel-held areas," the bishop said.
When contacted, military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara stressed that the army was not shelling the shrine and blamed the rebels.
"Our troops are well aware of the location of the sacred Madhu Church and we are not firing shells towards that area. The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) must be responsible for the firing," he said.
Though there was no immediate reaction from the LTTE on the matter, a pro-LTTE Tamil website puthinam.com quoted the group's political wing head P. Nadesan as saying that the military was trying to convert the Madhu area into a war zone.
In another development, the Sri Lankan Air Force claimed that its supersonic fighter jets had bombarded a LTTE training base in Puloppalai, southeast of the security forces forward defence lines at Muhamalai in the Jaffna peninsula Friday morning.
"The pilots confirmed that the targeted LTTE training facility was completely destroyed due to the bombardment," Air Force spokesperson Wing Commander Andrew Wijesooriya said.