COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Police on Saturday found a large weapons cache hidden in a house on the outskirts of the Sri Lankan capital, and arrested 17 people suspected of planning a major attack.
The weapons haul came as the government carried out a third day of airstrikes on rebel positions in northern Jaffna Peninsula and six soldiers died in a mine blast blamed on separatist Tamil insurgents.
The peninsula has seen some of the fiercest fighting in years since the Tamil Tigers began a major push in mid-August to recapture the government-held region, which is dear to the ethnic minority.
Hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands have fled heavy shelling along the de facto border separating rebel and government-controlled territory in Jaffna.
A passenger ferry was expected Saturday to evacuate about 160 foreign passport holders who have been trapped by the fighting.
In the capital Colombo, police said they foiled a major attack on the city.
Officers from the police's elite special task force, acting on a tip, raided a house in Pamunugama, a coastal town close to the country's international airport on Saturday morning, seizing weapons and explosives, police said.
The haul included eight hand grenades, two roadside bombs, an assault rifle, ammunition and detonators, police officer S. A. Jeewahasta told The Associated Press.
The officer said 17 suspects, including two women, were detained for questioning.
The suspects are all from Kokkadicholai, a village in the northeast controlled by Tamil Tiger insurgents, Jeewahasta said.
Most have been living on the outskirts of Colombo for nearly 15 years and were preparing a major attack, an investigating officer told the AP, requesting anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the press. He declined to give further information.
Roadside bombs that fire hundreds of steel balls propelled by plastic explosives are among the rebels' preferred weapons.
On Tuesday, police discovered and defused a powerful bomb planted on a bicycle in a busy shopping district in Colombo.
The Tigers have been fighting for more than 20 years on behalf of the island nation's 3.2 million ethnic Tamils, who have suffered decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.
A 2002 cease-fire brought a halt to large-scale hostilities, but the truce is endangered by the fighting in Jaffna as well as clashes in eastern Trincomalee over water supply.
The United Nations refugee agency estimates that over 200,000 people have fled their homes in the two regions, and the international community has urged the two sides to return to peace negotiations.
On Saturday, the rebels released a policeman they had held for over 11 months as a "goodwill gesture," European monitors overseeing the cease-fire said.