Tamil Tiger rebels bombed and sank a Navy cargo ship off eastern Sri Lanka early yesterday with no casualties reported, while infantry clashes in the embattled north killed 24 rebels and two soldiers, the military said.
The attack on the ship took place just hours before residents of eastern Sri Lanka began voting in a critical provincial election in a formerly rebel-held region.
Tamil Tigers attacked the Navy ship with an underwater explosion at about 2:15am and the vessel sank, said Navy spokesman Commander D.K.P. Dassanayake. The 65m craft was empty of cargo, he said.
“We suspect the blast was carried out by a suicide diver,” he said.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan was not immediately available for comment.
A pro-rebel Web site reported that suicide attackers from the guerrillas’ Sea Tiger wing sank the ship. Despite the Navy spokesman’s claim it was empty, the site said it was loaded with explosives to be transported for use by soldiers in the northern Jaffna peninsula.
The Tamil Tigers, who have long been fighting for an independent state for the country’s ethnic minority Tamils, run a strong naval force. The rebels’ suicide attackers often ram boats packed with explosives into government naval ships and have also carried out attacks similar to yesterday’s attack, Dassanayake said.
Residents in the east were voting yesterday in their first major election — less than a year after the rebels lost control of the region.
But a new round of attacks blamed on the rebels threatened to undermine the poll.
Yesterday Tamil Tigers fired seven mortar rounds into the village of Pannalgama in the eastern Ampara district, wounding four civilians including a 10-year-old child, said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara.
A bomb hidden in a package exploded in a cafe on Friday evening in Ampara town, killing 11 people and sparking fears that the rebels had more attacks planned for election day.
The military has accused the rebels of trying to disrupt the polls.
Meanwhile, fighting has continued in the north.
Army troops and Tamil Tigers battled along the front lines in Vavuniya and Welioya regions bordering the rebels’ de facto state on Friday, leaving 24 rebels and two soldiers dead, Nanayakkara said.
There was no comment from rebels on the fighting.
It was not possible to obtain independent confirmation of the military’s claims because reporters are not allowed in the war zone.
Both sides are known to exaggerate death tolls and damage inflicted upon each other while underreporting their own losses.
Troops have battled for months over territory around the rebels’ northern strongholds, promising they would crush the insurgents by the end of the year.
The rebels have strongly resisted and halted some military advances.
The Tamil Tigers have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for minority Tamils who have been marginalized by successive governments controlled by majority Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict.