Tamil Tigers open new front with resort attack

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The Independent Online

Sri Lanka's civil war came to the tourist coast in dramatic fashion as Tamil Tiger rebels staged a sea-borne raid on one of the island's top holiday destinations, the port town of Galle.

Disguised as fishermen, the Tigers reached the town's naval base in five small vessels that had been travelling with fishing boats. Three of the Tigers' boats exploded at sea, damaging Sri Lankan naval vessels. Two made it to the shore, where the rebels attacked the base on land, leading to an hour-long gun battle.

"After the explosions, everybody started shooting. It was terrifying," Ramile Walgamage, a local resident, told the BBC News website. "The navy boys were running around engaged in a gun battle and not fully dressed because it was early morning."

Although the Sri Lankan navy said 15 rebels had been killed for the loss of one sailor, it was a potentially devastating psychological blow to Sri Lanka's vital tourist industry, still struggling to recover from the 2004 tsunami.

The beaches around Galle and the town's historic fort are usually packed with tourists at this time of year. Last night the town was under curfew amid reports of revenge attacks on shops owned by Tamils.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have a reputation for staging spectacularly effective attacks, and yesterday's was no exception. Although the raid was on a Sri Lankan naval base, it seemed clear the real target was the tourism industry, just weeks before the start of the major season. Galle is the only major town on Sri Lanka's south coast with popular tourist beaches. It is also famous for its hotels and restaurants.

Attacking it represents a major shift in tactics for the Tigers, who have generally avoided targeting tourist areas, confining their raids to the north and east, and the capital Colombo - to the extent that it has been possible for tourists to continue visiting the south coast despite fighting on the other side of the island.

The attack comes only two days after at least 95 sailors were killed when a convoy of buses was hit in a suspected suicide bombing. It will throw further doubt over peace talks scheduled to take place in Switzerland later this month.

There were differing accounts of exactly what happened in yesterday's attack, as both sides are also engaged in a propaganda war. The Sri Lankan navy said it managed to destroy three of the Tiger boats, but other accounts claimed they were detonated in suicide attacks on navy vessels.

The Sri Lankan government was also at pains to play down reports of revenge attacks on Tamil shopkeepers in Galle. A security spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, accused the Tigers of trying to provoke revenge attacks on civilians in order to win international sympathy ahead of the talks in Switzerland.

"We ask the people not to fall into the trap that has been laid by the LTTE," he told reporters.

It appears there were some minor attacks in Galle and the police fired in the air to disperse the crowd. But reports from the town said that it was calm and under heavy security yesterday evening.

The police also denied claims of revenge attacks on Tamils further north, near the scene of Monday's suicide bombing.

Hours after yesterday's attack, the Sri Lankan military launched air raids on Tiger-held territory near the eastern town of Batticaloa. At least 2,000 people have been killed in violence so far this year, and a 2002 ceasefire now exists only on paper. Both sides have said they will go ahead with talks in Switzerland.