Sri Lankan navy attacks rebels transporting weapons, killing around 70
Mon September 25, 2006 02:00 EDT .
Associated Press Writer
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Sri Lanka's navy sank 11 Tamil Tiger rebel ships loaded with troops and weapons on Monday during a five-hour sea battle off the country's east coast, killing about 70 separatists, a top navy official said.
It was one of the largest clashes since fighting escalated in the area in August, and dealt a further blow to a 2002 cease-fire that was supposed to end Sri Lanka's bloody 19-year civil war. The latest fighting began late Sunday night when the navy spotted 25 rebel ships sailing from their northern stronghold south along the eastern coast.
Rasiah Ilanthirayan, military spokesman for the separatists, disputed the navy's claims. He said only three rebel fighters had been killed and none of their boats sunk.
``But we damaged two naval attacking crafts,'' he said by telephone from the rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi.
Tamil Tigers and the military frequently dispute each other's claims, and independent confirmation is virtually impossible as the areas are closed to outsiders.
The military said it planned to release a video proving it had destroyed rebel ships.
Navy Cmdr. D.K.P. Dassanayake said the rebel ships were believed to have been transporting arms and ammunition to reinforce the Tigers near the strategic eastern port of Trincomalee. Some 70 Tigers were killed and around 30 wounded, he said. The navy attacked with gunboats, he said.
The remaining 14 rebel boats retreated after the hostilities just off the coast of the eastern town of Pulmoddai, about 225 kilometers (140 miles) northeast of the capital Colombo, he said.
One navy vessel was damaged, and five sailors wounded, but the boat made it back to port, he said.
An officer at the Defense Ministry's press office said the third in command of the Tigers' sea wing, known by the single name Seliyan, may have been killed in the battle.
Seliyan's boat was among those badly damaged, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
The official said Seliyan was thought to have been seriously injured or killed because he stopped communications in the midst of the battle.
Rebel officials were not immediately available to comment on reports of Seliyan's death.
It was the latest in a series of military setbacks for the Tamil Tigers in recent weeks after losing territory to government forces in the north and the east.
According to the military, more than 100 rebels were killed in two separate sea battles earlier this month along the same stretch of coast.
The Sri Lankan navy was returning nearly 1,000 Tamil civilians to the embattled northern Jaffna peninsula on Monday. They have been stranded in Vavuniya, just below the border with the rebel-controlled north, since fighting broke out on Aug. 11.
Foreign mediators are struggling to keep alive the Norwegian-brokered cease-fire accord, which has unraveled amid clashes that have killed at least 1,000 combatants and more than 100 civilians since July.
The Tamil rebels began fighting in 1983 for a separate homeland in the north and east for Sri Lanka's largest ethnic minority, citing decades of discrimination by the Sinhalese majority.
Farther down the eastern coast, thousands of Muslims were fleeing the port town of Mutur, after the distribution of leaflets warning of an imminent rebel attack.
About 1,400 of them, including women and children, sought shelter on the nearby island of Kinniyai, while many more were prevented from leaving by authorities who said they had nothing to fear.
The exodus forced many to abandon observances of the Islamic fasting month, Ramadan, which began in Sri Lanka on Sunday.
It was the second time since August that the mostly Muslim residents of Mutur, about 230 kilometers (140 miles) east of Colombo, have fled the town. They had returned home just two weeks ago after having been driven out by fighting between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels, which killed an unknown number of civilians.
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Published: Mon Sep 25 03:32:05 EDT 2006