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Sunday, December 6, 1998 Published at 13:43 GMT

World: South Asia

Sri Lankan minister survives mortar attack

This is the second attempt on Mr Ratwatte's life

Sir Lankan Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte has survived a mortar attack by Tamil Tiger rebels.

Amal Jayasinghe in Colombo: "At least six shells hit the small town."
However, four soldiers guarding him were killed and more than 40 other soldiers were injured in the attack in the northern town of Oddusudan.

Mr Ratwatte, the energy minister who also holds the junior defence portfolio, was visiting the town following its recent capture by government forces from the Tamil rebels.

He was leaving a Hindu religious ceremony in a temple when shells hit the town, officials said.

They said the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fired at least six mortar bombs at the town while the minister was still there.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is a close relative of Mr Ratwatte, is the full defence minister and the commander-in-chief of armed forces. Mr Ratwatte is responsible for day-to-day running of the defence ministry.

An army general accompanying Mr Ratwatte was slightly wounded in the attack, which came as the defence ministry was due to fly a group of Colombo-based foreign and local journalists to visit Oddusudan.

The press tour was called off and the journalists brought back to Colombo as the authorities felt it was unsafe to continue with the visit.

Mr Ratwatte was flown to the central northern town of Anuradhapura, 120km (75 miles) to the south of Oddusudan.

Second attempt

He had a similar encounter with death two years ago when his helicopter mistakenly landed inside a rebel-held area of the island's north after his pilot lost his bearings and ran out of fuel.

With the help of local residents, Mr Ratwatte, who is also a part-time pilot, walked about 5km (three miles) to reach a military bunker. The Tigers blasted the helicopter within minutes.

The army captured the town of Oddusudan from the rebels on Friday. The defence ministry said that on Saturday night the LTTE fired mortar bombs and artillery at army defences in the town and nearby Nedunkerni, causing several army casualties.

The capture of Oddusudan coincided with the ending of the army's Sure Victory offensive, intended to capture a key stretch of highway from the rebels.

The army is now closer to the LTTE's main command-and-control centres in the jungles of Mullaitivu, but further away from its objective of creating an opening to the northern peninsula of Jaffna.

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