Tamil Tigers storm key base: Sri Lankan forces suffer their worst defeat in 10-year war with separatists

Click to follow
THE Sri Lankan army yesterday suffered its worst defeat in the 10-year civil war with Tamil separatists. More than 200 soldiers were killed when guerrillas stormed a key base at Pooneryn, in the north of the island, raiding an armoury and seizing a tank, naval patrol boats and heavy artillery.

In Colombo, the Defence Ministry refused to comment, saying only that 'fierce fighting' was still raging in the Pooneryn garrison. But agencies report that before dawn yesterday, a force of between 500 and 1,000 Tamil guerrillas attacked the base. Several Tamil brigades arrived on launches from the guerrilla stronghold of Jaffna, across a lagoon, and swiftly infiltrated the garrison's thin defences.

Analysts said Pooneryn camp is surrounded by guerrillas, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, and help can only reach the besieged garrison by air or sea. But army helicopter gunships flying in reinforcements were unable to land yesterday, and some reports claimed that by nightfall, many of the 1,500 troops inside the garrison were fleeing through the dry scrubland, where they were hunted down by the Tigers.

More than 50 Tamil guerrillas were reported killed in the assault. Pooneryn is a small, dusty village, but it is of strategic importance. From Pooneryn and another base further east at Elephant Pass, Sri Lankan forces were able to seal off the Jaffna Peninsula, the largest territory held by the Tamil guerrillas and their launch pad for attacks deeper inside Sri Lanka. Now, the army siege has effectively been broken.

Over the past few months, in a series of small but hard- fought battles, Sri Lankan forces had been slowly tightening their grip on Jaffna. Until this government defeat, it had seemed that the tide had turned against the Tigers, who are fighting for a separate homeland in the northern third of the country. Most Sri Lankans are Sinhalese Buddhists, while the minority Tamils are primarily Hindus.

The war has bled Sri Lanka's economy dry, left thousands dead, and sent hundreds of thousands of Tamils fleeing to the nearby Indian mainland. Tamil suicide-bombers are also thought to have claimed the lives of the late Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991 and the Sri Lankan president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, earlier this year.