Sri Lanka navy sinks rebel boats in fierce sea battle

2001-04-20 08:06

Colombo - Sri Lankan navy gunboats sank at least four cargo vessels of Tamil Tiger guerrillas on Friday and deployed air force jets to bomb three more rebel boats, a defence ministry spokesman said.

Navy Dvora-class attack craft destroyed the supply boats of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) off the coast of Chalai, where there was a similar confrontation four days ago, spokesman Sanath Karunaratne said.

He said air force jets carried out bombing attacks and hit one of the three rebel boats that escaped naval gunfire.

"We detected another Tiger boat that landed at Pudhumathalan fishing village, but the pilots did not engage the target because they believed the Tigers had forced civilians to unload the craft," Karunaratne said.

However, he said a search was on for the third rebel craft that escaped.

Four navy sailors were wounded while navy craft were also hit by gunfire in the ferocious sea battle, Karunaratne said. "The damages to the navy craft are very minor and no more than bullet holes," he said.

He said four Dvora-class gunboats were involved in the attack before the navy rushed in reinforcements to take on the supply convoy of the LTTE, which maintains a stronghold in the north-eastern Mullaitivu region.

There was no immediate reaction from the rebels.

Karunaratne said they suspected that the rebels were ferrying supplies to their Mullaitivu bases when the navy detected the craft and swung into action before dawn.

The latest fighting was similar to the action on Monday in the same area. In that attack, one navy craft was disabled and had to be towed to safety while two more were hit by rebel fire.

The rebels admitted losing two of their cadres, including a woman combatant, and accused the military of breaking its own truce by launching the sea battle.

The Tigers have observed a unilateral truce since Christmas Eve, extending it every month. It is due to expire on April 24, but the rebels have said they plan to extend it again to help Norwegian attempts to broker peace.

On March 21, the Tigers sank a navy gunboat in the same area off the coast of Mullaitivu district, killing at least five sailors and losing four of their own cadres.

The latest naval action came on the sixth anniversary of what is known as Eelam War III.

The LTTE pulled out of peace talks and launched a major attack against the north-eastern naval port of Trincomalee on April 19, 1995 ending a truce that lasted 100 days.

Two navy boats anchored at Trincomalee, a staging post for allied troops in the World War II, were sunk in the Tiger attack that led to the latest round of bloodletting.

The LTTE is leading a drawn out campaign for an independent homeland for the island's Tamil minority concentrated in the northern and eastern provinces of the island.

More than 60 000 people have been killed in fighting in the past two decades with all political and military attempts to end the conflict leading to more bloodshed.

Norway has been trying to broker a face-to-face meeting between the two sides for the past two years. However, there have been no direct talks between the antagonists so far. - Sapa-AFP