Sri Lanka bombs Tiger rebels after navy boat sunk

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankan air force jets bombed rebel Tamil Tiger ground positions on Saturday after a navy patrol boat was sunk by a suspected rebel mine off the northeast coast, with 10 of the 16 crew missing and feared dead.

Pro-Tamil sources said the Dvora fast attack boat was destroyed by a suicide squad of so-called black Tiger fighters, with three rebels killed in the sea clash.

But the military said the boat struck a mine during an early morning patrol by two navy craft in darkness near Nayaru area, around 300 kms north of the capital Colombo.

“We suspect it was an LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) sea mine,” navy spokesman Commander D.K.P Dassanayake told Reuters, saying the explosion happened around 2am.

“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 said rebel suicide fighters destroyed the boat.

“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 Web site said, citing Tiger sources in Vanni.

Both sides regularly make conflicting claims to boost front-line morale. Their reports are impossible to verify since Nordic peace monitors who had been keeping watch over a shaky ceasefire left the island this year.

They left after President Mahinda Rajapaksa formally scrapped a six-year truce in the country’s 25-year civil war in January, accusing the rebels of using the peace to rearm. The navy ship was the second sunk by suspected Tigers since then.

The military has been intensifying its campaign against the Tigers, who are fighting for an independent homeland, pressing forward in their northern strongholds and aiming to defeat them by year’s end.

But in a separate incident, two government soldiers were killed and six others injured when their bus hit a Tiger landmine in the northwestern district of Mannar late Friday.

The military immediately struck back, launching bombing raids on a sea Tiger radar position near Nayaru, which may have played a role in the rebel attack. It was unclear if any Tiger fighters were killed.

“We have taken out a target this morning. It’s a Sea Tiger radar location,” said Air Force spokesman Wing Commander Andrew Wijesuriya.

The military said they had also overrun Tiger positions near Parayanakulam, also in Mannar, killing 15 rebels for the loss of 2 government soldiers.

That bought the death toll in fighting this week to 158 rebels and seven soldiers. A search was still under way for the 10 crew missing from the navy attack craft.

The Tigers have hit back against the military offensive 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.

Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal