Colombo / Sydney: 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—was crippled and the other was damaged,” said a defence official who declined to be named. He said a salvage operation was under way. He said the 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 guerrillas had used three suicide boats and one of them capsized and the navy managed to capture it without its occupants, who were believed to have been killed in the naval firing, the official said.
Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers have a sea-going unit known as “Sea Tigers,” a rarity among rebel outfits in the world. The Tigers have used explosives-laden boats to sink naval and civilian craft in the past as part of their drawn-out and deadly campaign for an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils.
There was no immediate comment from the Tigers. However, pro-rebel website Tamilnet.com said two Black Sea Tigers, including a woman, died in the attack.
The Jaffna peninsula, which has a population of nearly 500,000, 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 described the attack as “another cowardly attempt by the terrorists to deny essential supplies to the civilians living in war-affected areas.”
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 large-scale ground offensive against the Tigers in the northern mainland.
Government forces say they are 10-15km southwest of Kilinochchi, the administrative capital of the LTTE, but breached the town’s major defences over the weekend.
Monsoon rains and intense Tiger resistance had slowed the ground offensive, according to military sources.
The defence ministry also admitted scores of its troops were 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.
Meanwhile, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said he told India that the army’s offensive to defeat Tamil rebels will continue after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised concern over civilians caught in the fighting.
Military operations are against the rebel LTTE and aren’t aimed at the Tamil people, Rajapaksa said on Tuesday, adding that he made this clear to Singh in a telephone conversation on 18 October.
The government will carry out its responsibilities to protect civilians “to the fullest, especially with regard to the people who are temporarily displaced in the north due to the ongoing military operations to defeat terrorism,” Rajapaksa said, according to a statement.
The number of displaced people has been inflated, Rajapaksa said, adding that there are about 150,000 civilians affected by the operations in the northern Wanni region. There are enough food supplies for two months in the area, he said. “We continue to supply food, even to the LTTE, because our responsibility is to the civilians, the farmers and the rural producers of the region who are trapped by the LTTE,” Rajapaksa said, according to the statement.
Relations with India haven’t been affected by Singh’s comments, Rajapaksa said. “The situation does not call for military victory,” the Indian Prime Minister said in New Delhi last week. “It calls for a negotiated political settlement.”
Tamil lawmakers in Tamil Nadu said last week they will resign from the Parliament within two weeks unless Singh’s government presses Sri Lanka to stop the army offensive against the LTTE that is harming civilians.
The state is home to some 73,000 Sri Lankan refugees, most of them Tamils, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.