Thirteen Sri Lankan sailors killed in rebel ambush

Suspected Tamil Tiger rebels ambushed a naval convoy in northwestern Sri Lanka Friday, killing 13 sailors and injuring at least three others, the navy said. About 30 sailors were traveling in a bus and a truck toward their base in Mannar district, 220 kilometers (135 miles) north of the capital, Colombo when they were attacked, said navy spokesman Cmdr. Jayantha Perera.

He said the explosions were initially thought to be land mine blasts, but it was found later that the rebels had triggered a claymore mine and fired rocket propelled grenades, causing a fire in the bus. Perera said that 13 sailors were killed in the attack.

Also Friday, suspected Tamil Tiger rebels fatally shot a Sri Lankan army intelligence agent in the central Sri Lankan town of Nuwara Eliya, 180 kilometers (110 miles) east of Colombo. It was the first known attack of its kind in the area, said Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe, who blamed the Tigers for the killing.

The attacks are the most serious violence to threaten the already-shaky 2002 government-rebel cease-fire that halted Sri Lanka's devastating two-decade war. Violence has escalated in Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil-majority northeast since rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran threatened to resume his struggle for an independent Tamil nation if the government fails to address grievances of the minority Tamil community. During this month alone, 20 government soldiers were killed and many more injured in attacks blamed on the rebels.

The mine blasts Friday came hours after the Tamil rebels claimed that three sailors believed to have been abducted by them in a sea battle Thursday had drowned.

In a letter to the Norwegian-led cease-fire monitoring team, the Tigers denied allegations they'd started the sea battle off the country's northwest coast. The "Sri Lanka navy intercepted the (rebel) fleet and started firing," said the letter from the rebels' political leader, S. P. Thamilselvan, to chief cease-fire monitor Hagrup Haukland.

"Our members had to return fire for self-protection," the letter said. The rebels provided The Associated Press with a copy. Sri Lanka's navy had said earlier that 10 rebel boats attacked two navy vessels Thursday, sinking one and capturing three sailors, reports the AP. I.L.

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