Associated France Press (AFP) 7/1/2006
Suicide blast kills 15 sailors in Sri Lanka
COLOMBO (AFP) - Suspected Tamil Tiger rebels blew up a naval gunboat, killing 15 Sri Lankan sailors, in a suicide attack that dealt a fresh blow to efforts to save a tottering peace process.
The rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) deployed a woman cadre to ram an explosives-laden vessel into an Israeli-built Dvora class gunboat just outside the port of Trincomalee, the navy said in a statement.
"A woman LTTE cadre had been tasked to take on the target," the navy said. "This incident is the latest act of the LTTE to fulfil its undeclared aim of attacking the navy under the guise of fishermen."
"There were two gunboats in the area and one saw the other being attacked," defence ministry spokesman Prasad Samarasinghe said, adding fishermen rescued two sailors from the gunboat.
The attack inflicted the biggest single military loss of life since a truce went into effect in February 2002, defence officials said .
President Mahinda Rajapakse huddled in talks with military commanders and called for restraint while taking precautions to prevent further rebel attacks, senior administration officials said.
"There will be no knee-jerk reaction," a senior aide told AFP.
However, the private Centre for Policy Alternatives thinktank called the attack a major blow to peacebroker Norway's attempts to salvage the peace process.
"This is a big setback," said the centre's director Sunanda Deshapriya. "The Tigers want to drag the army into fighting and there are some in the defence establishment who may want just that."
Norway is sending International Development Minister Erik Solheim later this month to try and revive talks between the two parties to save the Oslo-brokered ceasefire.
Saturday's attack came as the United States expressed concern over a spike in violence. The bloodshed has fanned fears of a return to full-scale war in the island where at least 115 people have died in the past month in violence linked to Sri Lanka's three-decade ethnic conflict.
The ministry could not confirm reports five bodies of sailors had been found and said a recovery operation was still under way.
Separatist Tiger guerrillas are known to have carried out suicide attacks against dozens of naval craft in the past.
There was no immediate Tiger comment on the attack. But the guerrillas said in a statement posted on their website that the military killed two rebels in a pre-dawn mine attack on an area under their control in Trincomalee.
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."
Saturday's 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 tropical Indian Ocean island soon to discuss the conflict, the State Department said.
Saturday's strike 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.
After that incident, the Tigers accused the navy of attacking them first and said they acted in self-defence. However, Scandinavian truce monitors said the rebels violated the ceasefire.
Citing the latest attack, Samaraweera appealed for international pressure on the Tigers to bring them back to the negotiating table to end the conflict that has claimed over 60,000 lives since 1972.
"They are a brutal terror machine but having said that, we must bring them into the mainstream and terrorism must be wiped out," he said in Washington.
In 1995, the Tigers infiltrated the naval facilities in Trincomalee and blasted two craft to signal a new wave of fighting.
Tensions have been running high in the region since the killing of five students, allegedly by government forces, Monday.