Suspected Rebels Hit Sri Lankan Naval Base

Suspected Tamil rebels posing as fishermen blew up two of their boats in a suicide ambush on a naval base, killing at least one sailor in the first such attack on Sri Lanka's touristy southern coast, the military said. Police imposed an open-ended curfew in the town.

Two sailors were also missing and at least 12 others wounded in the attack in the resort town of Galle, while two navy fast boats and another small boat suffered damage, a Defense Ministry spokesman said, adding that 14 civilians were also wounded.

CountryWatch: Sri Lanka

Police imposed an open-ended curfew in Galle, and an Associated Press reporter there said the town was calm but under heavy security.

"A curfew is being imposed very strictly ... and no one can come into the city and cause damage," Galle police Senior Superintendent Keerethi de Silva said.

A resident in Galle said there had been one incident of people attacking a Tamil shop, but that the violence had not spread, he said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. He said parents were taking their children home from school.

Hours after the attack, the military launched airstrikes on Tamil Tiger targets in eastern Batticaloa. The Tigers said in a statement that the air force attack on rebel-controlled areas killed one civilian and wounded two others, including a 10-year-old boy.

Military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe confirmed the air attacks but denied they targeted civilian areas.

The suicide bombing in Galle could signal a major shift for the Tamil Tiger rebels, whose decades-long campaign for a separate homeland for minority ethnic Tamils has largely focused on Sri Lanka's north and east, which they claim as their cultural heartland.

It also could be a major blow to Sri Lanka's tourism industry, with peak season about to begin in Galle and its nearby beaches, a major draw for travelers. Galle, 70 miles south of the capital, Colombo, also is home to Sri Lanka's main southern naval port.

The suspected Tamil Tiger rebels blew up two of their boats after entering the harbor area posing as fishermen, while the navy destroyed the remaining three boats, the Defense ministry spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing agency policy.

All the rebels were killed, but it was not immediately clear how many insurgents were aboard the boats, he said.

The rebels did not make any immediate comment, but the pro-rebel TamilNet Web site reported that a 15-member rebel attack team had entered Galle harbor in five boats and that three boats exploded.

The attack also was expected to further damage peace efforts ahead of scheduled talks between the government and rebels starting Oct. 28 in Switzerland. Both sides this week committed themselves to the talks.

Sri Lanka's top security spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella accused the rebels of launching deadly attacks to provoke a backlash against ethnic Tamils that could help them win international sympathy ahead of the talks.

"We ask the people not to fall into the trap that has been laid by the LTTE," he told reporters.

A violent backlash by the majority Sinhalese against Tamil civilians could strengthen the Tigers' claim that the Tamil people can live in peace only if they achieve a separate homeland.

It was the second attack on the navy this week.

On Monday a rebel suicide bomber rammed a truck filled with explosives into a military bus convoy in central Sri Lanka, killing at least 95 sailors and wounding more than 150 others — the deadliest insurgent attack since a 2002 cease-fire temporarily halted the country's civil war.

Last Wednesday, fierce battles on the besieged northern Jaffna Peninsula killed at least 129 soldiers and more than 200 rebels, and left hundreds of others wounded.

The surge in violence comes as Sri Lanka faces increasing international pressure to return to the negotiating table.

Japanese peace envoy Yasushi Akashi was scheduled to hold talks with rebel leaders in the north Wednesday, while Norwegian envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer arrived in Colombo on Tuesday for meetings with government and rebel officials.

U.S. envoy Richard Boucher will make a two-day visit to Sri Lanka starting Thursday.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority in the north and east, citing decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. About 65,000 people were killed before the 2002 cease-fire.