Three Sri Lankan sailors missing from a sea battle are dead

The Tamil Tiger rebels said Friday that three sailors missing from a sea battle the previous day between Sri Lanka's navy and the insurgents had died, and denied allegations that rebels started the fighting. The rebels, in a letter to the Norwegian-led team monitoring Sri Lanka's 2002 cease-fire accord, accused the navy of initiating Thursday's battle off the country's northwestern coast, the latest in a string of violence threatening to unravel the cease-fire.

"Sri Lanka navy intercepted the (rebel) fleet and started firing," said the letter by top rebel political chief S. P. Thamilselvan to head cease-fire monitor Hagrup Haukland. A copy of the letter was made available by the rebels to The Associated Press. Our members had to return fire for self-protection," it said. Sri Lanka's navy said earlier that 10 rebel boats had attacked two navy vessels Thursday, sinking one of them and capturing three sailors. The rebel letter, however, said they had approached the sinking navy boat and found two dead sailors and a third alive, but with serious injuries. "Abandoning the sinking boat with two dead bodies, our members decided to save the injured sailor by transferring him to our boat already damaged by the naval attack," said the letter. The damage to the rebel boat, however, was so extensive that it sank, with the injured soldier still onboard, the letter said, adding that the rebels were able to swim ashore.

A spokesman for the Sri Lankan navy, Cmdr. Jayantha Perera, was skeptical of the rebel claims. "We have not received the bodies, therefore we can't agree with the theory that they drowned," Perera said.

There was no direct comment from the administration of President Mahinda Rajapakse, but the state-run Daily News carried a government statement Friday describing the sea battle as a "pre-planned offensive" by the rebels and a "hostile act." The government statement pledged to react with restraint. "It is apparent that there is a concerted effort by the (rebels) to raise the intensity of the violence in the northeast," the statement said. "The government will continue to act with restraint, but take all necessary measures to ensure that the security forces are not impeded in carrying out their legitimate tasks", reports the AP. N.U.

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