September 1, 2006

Sri Lanka Sea Battle Erupts

By Simon Gardner

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's army mounted an offensive to capture rebel-held territory south of the strategic northeastern harbour of Trincomalee on Friday, officials said, and a naval battle broke out off the island's northern tip.

The army is trying to take the Tamil Tiger-held town of Sampur, from where the rebels are in artillery range of a major naval base and able to disrupt a key maritime supply route to the besieged army-held northern Jaffna peninsula.

"We are trying to neutralize the threat to Trincomalee," said a military spokesman. "Our strategy is to send people into Sampur to neutralize their artillery and mortar positions which are pointed toward the harbour."

He said 14 soldiers had been killed and 92 wounded since the offensive began on Sunday. The army estimates around 120 rebels were killed. The Tigers were not immediately reachable.

As evening fell, the Navy engaged 15 rebel boats at sea near the town of Point Pedro on the Jaffna peninsula. Officials said four rebel boats were damaged and believed many Tigers were injured, but had few details.

More than 20 lorries carrying government aid have been allowed into rebel territory through a 'border' crossing in the northern district of Vavuniya since Thursday.

The Essential Services Commission was loading 3,600 tonnes of emergency aid and food purchased by shop owners to sail to the northern Jaffna peninsula, which is cut off from the rest of the island by rebel lines and where shop shelves are empty. It was expected to sail on Sunday.

Residents in Jaffna said the peninsula had been quiet for the past 24 hours after fierce artillery exchanges between the rebels and the military.


The main opposition party has agreed to help find ways to halt the renewed civil war.

Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe wrote to President Mahinda Rajapakse saying he was ready to discuss ways "to resolve the national issue," party officials said. Previous efforts have come to nought, and the Tigers trust neither side.

Rajapakse met British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London on Thursday to discuss lessons learned from Northern Ireland's peace process.

"Both sides expressed the hope the two parties would be back to the negotiating table sooner than later," Sri Lanka's Government Peace Secretariat head Palitha Kohona told Reuters by telephone from London late on Thursday.

"Britain has extensive experience in dealing with a (conflict) situation of this nature."

A 2002 ceasefire between the government and Tigers is technically still in force, but survives only on paper.

The Tigers say they are fighting for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in the north and east.

Analysts expect fighting to rumble on. They say any idea of a return to the negotiations table to end a conflict that has killed more than 65,000 people since 1983 is a dim and distant prospect.

(With reporting by Ranga Sirilal in COLOMBO)