/ 7 January 2006

Suicide attack sinks Sri Lankan naval gunboat

Suspected Tamil rebels blew up a naval gunboat on Saturday, killing 15 Sri Lankan sailors in a suicide attack that caused the biggest military loss of life since a truce began four years ago, the military said.

The pre-dawn attack came as the United States expressed concern over the recent escalation of violence that has stoked fears of a return to civil war in the Indian Ocean island nation torn by ethnic conflict.

”The boat exploded and we believe it is an LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] suicide attack,” defence ministry spokesperson Prasad Samarasinghe said.

An explosives-packed fishing boat was believed to have rammed the Israeli-built Dvora-class gunboat, which was on a routine patrol outside Trincomalee harbour, 260km north-east of Colombo, he said.

”There were two gunboats in the area and one saw the other being attacked,” Samarasinghe said.

The strike, which killed 15 sailors including two officers, inflicted the biggest single military loss of life since the Norwegian-brokered truce took effect in February 2002, the military said.

Two sailors from the 17-member crew were rescued by other military craft.

Separatist Tiger guerrillas are known to have carried out suicide attacks against dozens of naval craft in the past using small boats packed with explosives.

There was no Tiger reaction, but they normally deny involvement in attacks.

In Colombo, President Mahinda Rajapakse was in talks with military commanders to discuss deteriorating security in the embattled regions, senior administration officials said.

”There will be no knee-jerk reaction,” a senior aide said.

But Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, visiting Washington, told reporters: ”There will come a point when the public could be provoked into action and the government may not be able to control [the situation].”

The attack came after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced ”concern over the recent upsurge in violence in northern and eastern Sri Lanka” in talks with Samaraweera in Washington on Thursday.

Washington plans to dispatch a senior official to the tropical Indian Ocean island soon to discuss the conflict, the State Department said on Friday.

The attack raised to 115 the number of people killed since December in the latest upsurge in violence linked to the conflict between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils that has claimed more than 60 000 lives since 1972.

Saturday’s attack was the first sinking of a high-powered naval gunboat since the truce and came 16 days after three sailors aboard a smaller naval patrol craft died in a sea battle with rebels off the north-western coast.

Following that incident, the Tigers accused the navy of attacking them first and maintained they acted in self-defence.

However, Scandinavian truce monitors said the rebels had violated the ceasefire.

Along with peace broker Norway, Washington is also pushing for a resumption of peace talks between Colombo and the Tamil Tigers, which was declared a foreign terrorist organisation by the US in October 1997.

Citing the latest attack, Samaraweera appealed for international pressure on the Tamil Tigers to bring them back to the negotiating table to end the drawn-out conflict.

”They are a brutal terror machine but having said that, we must bring them [the rebels] into the mainstream and terrorism must be wiped out,” Samaraweera said in Washington.

In 1995, the Tigers infiltrated the tightly guarded naval facilities in Trincomalee and blasted two anchored craft to signal a new wave of fighting.

Tensions have been running high in the region since the killings of five students, allegedly by government forces, on Monday.

Scandinavian truce monitors said last month the violence needed to stop to avert a slide back to civil war.

”If the trend of violence is allowed to continue, war may not be far away,” truce monitoring chief Hagrup Haukland said. — Sapa-AFP