TAMIL separatist rebels yesterday killed 44 Sinhalese villagers and injured 20 more in their first major attack on civilians in three years, the Government said. A senior defence ministry spokesman said the attack took place in the border village of Kallarawa in the eastern Trincomalee district. The officer said the village was guarded by a small military detachment which had gone into the nearby jungles at night to search for rebels. 'It was a lightning raid. The terrorists cut loose and vanished into the jungles before troops could come to the rescue. The defenceless villagers had no chance,' defence ministry spokesman Colonel Siri Handapangoda told the South China Morning Post yesterday. The dead included 24 men, 12 women and six children, according to Colonel Handapangoda. The ill-fated coastal hamlet of Kallarawa is the Sinhalese-populated village in the Eastern province closest to the Tiger-dominated Vavuniya district border. Most of the injured were sent by the military to the Trincomalee base hospital. A number of them were certified dead on arrival, the defence ministry spokesman said. Earlier, a marauding band of Tigers shot and killed the chief Buddhist priest of the Dimbulagala temple in the Polannaruwa district, a defence source said. He said that the priest, an outspoken critic of the Tamil separatist movement, had walked into an ambush while visiting a farm in the eastern Menik Ela area. The majority of the country's Sinhalese Buddhist clergy are opposed to Tamil rebel demands for an autonomous state. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have stepped up attacks on security forces and civilians since they ended a 100-day cease-fire on April 19. One sailor and three rebels were killed yesterday as navy gunboats supported by fighter jets pounded Sea Tiger positions in the rebel-controlled Jaffna lagoon. Defence sources said that several rebel boats had been destroyed in the attack. The rebels had taken control of the lagoon following an amphibious assault on a navy base in November 1993. Sea Tigers, the rebels' naval wing, has inflicted several devastating losses against the government military machine over the past few years. The rebel assault on civilians in the eastern sector came closely on the heels of combined security forces assaults on Sea Tiger positions on the northernmost tip of the Jaffna peninsula. Thousands of civilians have fled their coastal homes over the past few days following air, sea and land assaults by government forces on rebel positions in northern coastal townships. Military intelligence confirmed a massive civilian evacuation of the beleaguered areas. Combined defence forces carried out more pre-dawn attacks on Tiger bases scoring significant gains, military officials said. They said the artillery, air and naval assaults were continuing and would be intensified over the next few days. Meanwhile, the military yesterday imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in seven areas in Jaffna district. Security forces have prohibited all vehicular traffic along the coastal road from Point Pedro to Jaffna.