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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 August 2006, 15:05 GMT 16:05 UK
Tamil Tigers in troop ship attack
Policeman stands guard at the site of a Claymore mine attack on a bus transporting Sri Lankan troops to the Maavilaru area
The area around Trincomalee is heavily mined
Tamil Tiger rebels have attacked a ship carrying hundreds of Sri Lankan troops as it tried to enter the eastern port of Trincomalee.

The attack comes as the Sri Lankan army is engaged in a full-scale ground battle with the Tigers over a disputed waterway some 70 kms away.

Meanwhile Sweden said on Tuesday it would pull out its staff from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM).

It said the withdrawal was being made because of security concerns.

'Shelling and explosions'

Military officials say that the ship - carrying more than 850 soldiers - came under attack from mortar and artillery fire as it was sailing from the northern Jaffna peninsula to the port of Trincomalee.

Map

They say that the soldiers were unarmed and were going on leave.

Navy spokesman DKP Dassanayake told the Associated Press news agency that it sailed to safety, but the battle between the navy and rebels was still continuing.

A military spokesman in Colombo said four navy personnel had been killed in rebel mortar and artillery attacks following the attack on the ship.

Reports also say that there were 12 vessels carrying members of the rebels' suicide squads in the area and that one navy boat has been sunk.

A journalist in the town of Trincomalee interviewed by the BBC said that for a while the town was like a battlefield and that shops and businesses were closed.

The latest violence comes on the third day of a military ground offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels.

At least 23 soldiers and three rebels have been killed since the army launched the offensive to the south of Trincomalee port.

Up to 3,000 troops are involved in the efforts to gain control of the Maavilaru waterway that is in Tiger controlled territory, reports say.

The government says Tamil Tiger rebels have closed sluice gates on the waterway, denying thousands of farmers irrigation water for their paddy fields.

'Humanitarian'

"We can't say how long it will take for us to open the sluice gates," government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said. "We have to move very cautiously."

The government has described the offensive as a "humanitarian" operation.

Our correspondent says that soldiers are inching forwards on heavily-mined land, and that the offensive is going to be a difficult and slow process.

Ulf Henricsson, head of SLMM
In reality there is no ceasefire in Trincomalee
Ulf Henricsson, head of SLMM

But the government is adamant they will resolve the issue militarily.

The Tigers have described the offensive as an act of war. One Tiger leader said that the country's 2002 ceasefire was now null and void.

On Monday the rebels said that the army offensive had been "thwarted" and that government troops has not advanced more than a kilometre from one of their main camps.

EU dispute

The ceasefire is officially still in place. The SLMM has described the fighting as a "low-intensity war" and has warned that a full scale-war would be "disastrous" for both sides.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry said that the around 15 Swedish monitors would be pulled out by 1 September.

Finland and Denmark have already withdrawn their staff from the Nordic-run SLMM, which was established to monitor the ceasefire between the government and the Tigers.

The rebels have said that only monitors from the two non European Union (EU) countries represented on the SLMM - Norway and Iceland - can remain in areas they control.

The Tigers are unhappy over the EU's decision earlier this year to designate them as a banned terrorist group.




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