Saturday, May 13, 2006

Tamil Tigers sink peace hopes with suicide raid at sea

The Times
May 13, 2006

By Richard Beeston, Diplomatic Editor

ONE of the bloodiest naval engagements of modern times was blamed yesterday for pushing Sri Lanka back into an undeclared state of civil war.
As naval divers and patrol boats scoured the seas off northern Sri Lanka yesterday for victims of the battle, the four-year ceasefire between the Government and Tamil Tiger rebels appeared to have collapsed. A month of spiralling violence has claimed the lives of nearly 300 people.
The two-hour engagement late on Thursday afternoon killed 17 Sri Lankan sailors, including two officers, and an estimated 50 Tamil rebels.
According to the authorities, whose version was largely corroborated by European monitors who witnessed the attack, 15 Tamil vessels ambushed a squadron of six ships, an unarmed troop carrier and five escorts.
In the ensuing battle, four rebel boats were sunk and an Israeli-made patrol boat was destroyed by a rebel suicide boat.
The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, made up of European observers, denounced the rebels for committing “gross violations” of the truce.
The Tamil Tigers hit back, warning the monitors against travelling with the navy.
A statement said: “If you choose to ignore our warning and request, we are not responsible for the consequences . . . Please take this as the last warning to you.”
The exact strength of the rebel navy remains a secret, but there are thought to be as many as 6,000 “Sea Tigers” — including heavily armed gunboats, troop carriers and speedboats laden with explosives for suicide attacks.
Thursday’s two-hour battle revealed that the rebels pose a potent threat to the Sri Lankan Navy, which has 17,000 sailors and 50 vessels, mainly coastal patrol boats.
Jason Alderwick, a former Royal Navy warfare officer at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the use of naval contingents by the Tamil rebels was a unique feature of the conflict in Sri Lanka, and one that the authorities struggled to contain.
“The use of swarm boat tactics is very ferocious,” he said, “often leading to close-range gunnery situations. It has proved successful and is very hard to counter.
“First you have to identify the target and engage it. This is difficult if you have a swarm of five or 10 boats moving at high speed against you. You might take out two, but you could still have five more to deal with.
“The Sri Lankan Navy are increasingly vulnerable, particularly since the Tamil fighters often expect, and want, to die.”


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