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Rebels Hit Sri Lanka Ship Convoy

February 23, 1998

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Rebel gunboats attacked a 12-ship convoy carrying soldiers to northern Sri Lanka, sinking two vessels and killing up to 40 people, officials said Monday.

Separatist rebels in about 25 boats clashed with navy war ships escorting the convoy a few miles off the northern coast and about 200 miles north of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, military officials said.

Two ships carrying 110 soldiers and crew were sunk in the hour-long battle Sunday night. Seventy survivors were picked up by other ships. The rest of the 12-ship convoy made it safely to a nearby military port.

Warships and air force planes were hunting for more survivors, the officials said.

There were no reports of Tamil rebel casualties or further details of the fighting. In previous sea battles, rebels have sunk navy ships by carrying out suicide attacks, smashing their explosive-laden smaller boats into the larger craft.

The Tamil rebels are fighting for a separate homeland for minority Tamils in northern Sri Lanka, an Indian Ocean nation off India formerly known as Ceylon. More than 51,000 people have been killed since fighting erupted in 1983.

The ships were attempting to reinforce troops on the Jaffna Peninsula, a region controlled by the government but where the Tamil guerrillas are also entrenched. The peninsula is accessible only by sea and air because the rebels have cut its only road link to the mainland.

Since May, government forces have recaptured about two-thirds of the 50-mile highway. The military says more than 1,000 soldiers and 3,200 rebels have been killed in the battle to capture the road.

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