| A file picture of Sea Tiger fighting boats
Colombo, Jan. 7 (Reuters): A suspected Tamil Tiger suicide squad sank a patrol boat off Sri Lanka’s east coast today and 13 of the 15 crew are missing, feared dead, the navy said.
It was the worst attack at sea since a 2002 truce halted a two-decade civil war.
Fishermen pulled two sailors alive from the water after the pre-dawn attack on the Israeli-built fast patrol boat just outside Trincomalee naval harbour. There was no sign of the rest of the crew.
One of the survivors said a Tiger boat had rammed theirs and exploded, destroying both vessels, according to a military source. Police said they had heard a loud explosion.
If confirmed, it would be the first suicide attack on the military since the ceasefire . A similar attack on the navy in Trincomalee harbour killed 12 sailors and led a previous ceasefire to collapse in 1995.
“We believe it was a Tiger suicide mission. The Dvora (fast attack craft) was completely destroyed,” said a navy spokesman.
Officials said crews searching the Trincomalee site could not even find debris from the two vessels, and hopes for finding any more survivors were fading fast.
“Some of the men may have drifted elsewhere in sea currents, but I would say there is now a 90 per cent chance the other 13 are dead,” said a military spokesman.
In December, 39 military personnel were killed in a string of mine attacks, the deadliest month since the ceasefire that diplomats and truce monitors say is strained to breaking point.
The LTTE were not immediately available for comment, but have routinely denied any hand in attacks on the military ' which analysts and the government say they cannot believe.
The rebels have threatened to resume hostilities unless given wide autonomy.
Suspected rebel attacks escalated after the Tigers helped sink the chances of the candidate seen as most likely to reach a peace deal by boycotting a presidential poll in November, which analysts say shows they are using the truce to regroup and rearm.
The boycott helped perceived hardliner President Mahinda Rajapakse win the election.
The Tigers say they want a political solution to the conflict, which has killed more than 64,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more since 1983. But they also say they are ready for war unless they are given an ethnic homeland in the north and east, where they already run a de facto state.
President Rajapakse’s government and the rebels cannot even agree on a venue for talks, with the Tigers demanding they should be held in Europe and the government insisting on Asia or at home.
Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim is due in Sri Lanka on January 23.
Foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera, capping an official visit to Washington where he sought American help to avoid a slide back into war in the island state, said Colombo was “still willing to walk that extra mile for peace”.
“We want to bring pressure on the LTTE to come and sit with us at the table to discuss the weaknesses of the ceasefire,” Samaraweera added.