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Explosions Hit Naval Ships as Truce Apparently Broken

April 19, 1995 GMT

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Divers recovered the bodies of 11 sailors and four Tamil rebels Wednesday, hours after explosions sank two gunboats in a naval harbor in northeastern Sri Lanka.

Navy officials said earlier that 11 sailors were killed and 22 wounded in the attack, which was blamed on Tamil Tiger rebels.

The Tamil Tigers, who are fighting for a separate homeland for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils, had given the government until Wednesday to make concessions in peace talks, threatening to end a truce that began Jan. 8.

``Four bodies believed to be those of Tigers have been recovered from the wreckage,″ said Cmdr. Terrence Sundaram, the navy spokesman. Two of the victims were women.

The explosions came just a few hours after Sri Lanka had put its armed forces on high alert following a letter from Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to President Chandrika Kumaratunga informing her that they were breaking off the truce.

``I don’t know the details of the letter, but Prabhakaran definitely said in it that the cease-fire is being called off,″ Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar told The Associated Press.

Ms. Kumaratunga called an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the incident.

Initial reports indicate the simultaneous explosions came from underwater mines, said Rear Adm. Cecil Tissera, the naval chief of staff.

Naval sources identified the vessels as the SLNS Sooraya and the SLNS Ranasuru.

Tissera said damage to both ships was extensive. Other gunboats were evacuated from Trincomalee harbor, the navy’s largest base, 160 miles northeast of Colombo, Tissera said.

The military was ordered onto ``maximum alert and to retaliate if attacked,″ military officials said on condition of anonymity, adding that leaves were cancelled and officers were ordered back to their bases.

Earlier, the newspaper Eelanathan, published in the northern rebel stronghold of Jaffna, reported the Tigers were dissatisfied with the latest government position and were preparing to resume their campaign.

The rebels, claiming systematic discrimination against Tamils by the Sinhalese-dominated government, have been fighting since 1983 for independence or an autonomous Tamil zone in the north and east of the country. More than 34,000 people have been killed.

It was the second time since the cease-fire took effect that the armed forces have gone on alert. Last month, the Tigers also threatened to suspend the peace process, but later relented.

In the only other serious truce violation, two soldiers were shot and killed April 8 in their camp on the Jaffna Peninsula.

After a fourth round of peace talks with the rebels, the government allowed unimpeded fuel supplies into the Jaffna Peninsula for the first time in four years and lifted some restrictions on fishing for Jaffna residents.

But it has rejected guerrilla demands to remove a military base that blocks free access to the peninsula, and has accused the rebels of bad faith for refusing to begin substantive talks on a political settlement.