COLOMBO, May 11: Sri Lanka’s military hit back with air strikes on Thursday after a fierce sea battle with Tamil Tiger rebels left 45 people dead, according to the navy, and punched another hole in a flimsy three-year truce.

A Tamil Tiger suicide boat rammed and sank a Dvora fast attack craft as it escorted a ship transporting 710 soldiers to the northern peninsula of Jaffna, navy spokesman P. D. K. Dassanayake said.

“We lost a Dvora and managed to save ‘Pearl Cruise II’ and the 710 men aboard it,” Dassanayake said, adding that at least 15 Sri Lankan sailors and 30 rebels died in the two-and-a-half-hour battle.

He said three rebel craft were destroyed by naval gunfire while another four were crippled. A flotilla of about 15 rebel boats were involved in the abortive attack on the ship carrying troops, he said.

It was one of the worst naval confrontations since Norway brokered a truce in April 2003 after three decades of ethnic bloodshed that left 60,000 dead.

There was no immediate word from the Tigers about the latest fighting, but the navy discounted reports from Scandinavian truce monitors of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) that two Dvoras were sunk.

“There was an SLMM monitor aboard Pearl Cruise II and another Dvora that was involved in the fighting,” the navy spokesman said. “We have accounted for all our boats except for one that went down.”

The military called in jets to bomb suspected Tamil Tiger positions after the sea battle while the navy also engaged coastal bases of the Tigers elsewhere, military sources said.

After the sea battle, the Tiger flotilla involved in the fire-fight was seen withdrawing towards the coast, military sources said, as Israeli-built Kfir jets pounded rebel coastal positions.—AFP

Our correspondent in Colombo adds: Military spokesperson Brig Prasad Samarasinghe declined to comment on the air raids, but the truce monitors confirmed that the air force had shelled LTTE areas around Killinochchi, the guerillas’ headquarters.

The navy had also fired at LTTE boats late in the evening.

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