Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels struck back against a major government offensive on Wednesday with suicide attacks on merchant ships off the island’s northern coast, defence officials said.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rammed explosives-laden boats against the MV Ruhuna and MV Nimalawa which were supplying the besieged Jaffna peninsula, officials said.
The ethnic guerrillas also fought a sea battle with naval units defending the port of Kankesanthurai on the peninsula. At least six members of the elite Black Sea Tiger suicide squad may have perished in the attack, officials said.
“One of the merchant vessels — MV Nimalawa — is sinking and the other vessel was damaged,” a defence official who declined to be named said.
He said crew were rescued by the navy and there were no reports of casualties among the merchant sailors, who were escorted by heavily armed navy troops.
The Jaffna peninsula, which has a population of nearly half a million people, is controlled by government forces but is cut off from the rest of the island by LTTE-held territory and supplied entirely by ship or plane.
The peninsula, captured from the LTTE in 1995, is of both symbolic and strategic value to the Sri Lankan government. It is the birthplace of Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, and enables government troops to attack the rebels from the north and south.
The defence ministry painted the attack as “another cowardly attempt by the terrorists to deny essential supplies to the civilians living in war-affected areas.”
The ministry said sailors protecting the merchant vessels had opened fire on the Tiger suicide boats, and destroyed two.
“However, one of the suicide boats exploded in close proximity to Nimalawa causing considerable damage to the ship’s hull,” it said. A defence official said naval reinforcements had been rushed to the area.
Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers have a sea-going unit known as “Sea Tigers,” a rarity among rebel outfits in the world. The rebels have used explosives-laden boats to sink several naval and civilian craft in the past.
The guerrillas have a history of attacking international and local merchant shipping and were blamed by the military for the killing of 24 Chinese crew members of two fishing boats in 2003.
The latest attack came as the government, which pulled out of a Norwegian-brokered truce in January, maintained a major ground offensive against the Tigers in the northern mainland.
Government forces say they are 10km to 15km south-west of Kilinochchi, the administrative capital of the LTTE, but had breached the town’s major defences over the weekend.
Monsoon rains and intense Tiger resistance had slowed the military’s ground offensive, according to military sources.
The defence ministry also admitted scores of its troops had been killed or injured in fighting with the LTTE over the weekend.
Tens of thousands of people have died on both sides since 1972, when the LTTE launched its campaign to carve out an independent state in the Sinhalese-majority island of 20-million people. – AFP