COLOMBO AFP – Suspected Tamil rebels blew up a naval gunboat killing 15 Sri Lankan sailors in a suicide attack that inflicted the biggest military loss of life since a truce began four years ago.
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 spokesman 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, 260 kilometres (160 miles) northeast of here, 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 caused 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.
The attack brought to at least 115 the number of people killed in the past month in the resurgence of violence linked to the conflict between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils that has claimed over 60,000 lives since 1972.
Military officials earlier said they found five bodies of sailors, but the defence ministry here said they could not confirm those reports and a recovery operation was still underway.
Two of the 17-man crew who survived with injuries were rescued by fishermen and handed over to security forces, officials said Saturday.
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 immediate Tiger comment on the attack. But the guerrillas said in a statement posted on their website that the military had killed two rebels in a pre-dawn mine attack on an area under their control in the Trincomalee district.
In Colombo, President Mahinda Rajapakse was in talks with military commanders to discuss deteriorating security in the embattled regions, senior administration officials told AFP.
“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 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 Thursday.
Washington plans to dispatch a senior official to the Indian Ocean island soon to discuss the conflict, the State Department said Friday.
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 northwestern 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 who were 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 blew up two ships to signal a new wave of fighting.
Tensions have been running high in the region since the killings Monday of five students, allegedly by government forces.
Scandinavian truce monitors said last month the violence needed to stop to avert a slide back to civil war.