COLOMBO, March 22 A Sri Lanka navy fast attack boat was destroyed on Saturday when it hit a suspected sea mine laid by Tamil Tiger rebels off the northeast coast, with only five of the 16 crew so far rescued, the military said.
The boat hit the mine during an early morning patrol by two navy craft in darkness near Nayaru area, around 300 kms (185 miles) north of the capital Colombo, a navy spokesman said.
"We suspect it was an LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) sea mine," Commander D.K.P Dassanayake told Reuters.
"The commander of the boat said it was raining and he heard an explosion, so we suspect it's a sea mine explosion as there were no LTTE boats around that time and there wasn't any confrontation," Dassanayake said.
The pro Tiger website www.tamilnet.com said rebel suicide fighters, known as black Tigers, destroyed the boat in a clash with the navy and three rebels were killed.
"Elite Black Sea Tigers, engaged in a confrontation with a fleet of the Sri Lanka Navy in the seas off Mullaiththeevu, attacked and sunk a Dvora Fast Attack Craft," the website said, citing Tiger sources in Vanni.
Both sides regularly make conflicting claims to boost frontline morale and reports are impossible to verify. Sri Lanka's military has been fighting a two decade war against the separatist Tigers, who are fighting for an independent homeland in the country's north and east.
Since President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January formally scrapped a 6-year truce in the country's 25-year civil war in January, the military has been pressing the Tigers in their northern strongholds and aims to defeat them by year's end.
The Tigers have hit back with regular attacks increasingly aimed at civilians and normally using roadside bombs. An estimated 70,000 people have died since the war began in 1983.
(Reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by )