Colombo, June 14 (Reuters): A Tamil Tiger ship carrying 12 rebels sank today after a clash with the Sri Lankan navy in the latest blow to efforts to put the island’s stalled peace process back on track.
The military said the navy suspected the ship, belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was carrying weapons and after intercepting it fired warning shots.
“The suspected LTTE vessel then opened fire at Sri Lanka Naval craft using medium calibre machine guns,” the military said in a statement. “Sri Lanka Naval craft, exercising its right to self-defence, took immediate retaliatory action.”
It added that the navy saw a “huge fireball” and the vessel began to sink. Rebels have blown up their boats in the past to avoid capture.
The violence is the latest setback to the bid to end 20 years of war between the Tigers and the government, after the rebels suspended peace talks in April.
A statement on the pro-rebel Tamilnet web site said the ship was a merchant vessel and was stopped by the navy in international waters.
“The Sri Lanka gunboats had then continued to fire on the LTTE vessel until it began sinking,” the report said, adding the crew jumped overboard in life jackets when the firing began.
The military said the ship was towing a smaller boat with weapons on board. Under the terms of a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire that has been mostly holding since February last year, neither side is allowed to move military equipment into areas controlled by the other.
In a similar incident in March, 11 people were killed when the navy sank an LTTE ship it said was smuggling weapons, a charge the rebels denied. A spokesman for the Nordic monitors overseeing the truce said they were trying to ascertain the exact location of the clash and the fate of the 12 on board.
“The main concern right now is trying to rescue them, if that is still possible,” said spokesperson Agnes Bragadottir.