Colombo: The Maldives coast guard opened fire on and sank a vessel carrying suspected Tamil Tiger rebels on Thursday after a 12-hour standoff at sea in their southern territorial waters, the government said.
However one man who threw himself overboard before the clash and surrendered spoke the south Indian language Malayalam and not Tamil, and officials were treating the alleged rebel link with caution.
“We have sunk the vessel. We have captured the five people aboard,” Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed told Reuters by telephone from the Maldivian capital of Male.
A government spokesman said one of the captured men said four people he believed to be Tamil Tigers had boarded his 80 ft (25 metre) fishing trawler at sea and loaded it with guns and mortar bombs.
He said there was confusion over an initial coastguard report that the man had identified himself as a Tamil Tiger.
“We are now treating this with caution, because the man was speaking Malayalam and not Tamil,” said chief government spokesman Mohamed Shareef.
Sri Lanka’s Navy has sunk several boats and trawlers in recent months suspected of trafficking weaponry for the Tigers across the Palk Strait that separates Sri Lanka and India.
Maldivians are mindful of an abortive coup attempt in 1988 by dissidents backed by Tamil paramilitaries from Sri Lanka, which ended in the Indian Navy chasing and sinking a vessel the plotters had tried to escape on with hostages.
The Tamil Tigers, fighting for an independent state in neighbouring Sri Lanka, were not immediately available to comment on the incident, which took place several hundred nautical miles off the south of the Maldives archipelago.