The Sri Lankan navy, backed by air strikes, severely damaged a ship carrying weapons for Tamil Tiger rebels and killed eight insurgents off the east coast on Sunday, the military said.
The ship, said to have been sailing the separatists' flag and carrying heavy arms, ignored warning shots to stop and be searched and opened fire on the navy, the chief military spokesman, Brig Prasad Samarasinghe, said.
A high-seas gunbattle ensued with the air force called in to bomb the ship, he said. The suspected insurgents were still firing from the remains of their ship, he said. The navy said it suffered no casualties.
A military official said the navy believed it had killed 8 of 12 crew members and that the battle was still ongoing, eight hours after first contact.
The vessel was spotted 120 miles (220 kms) off Sri Lanka's eastern coast near disputed territory where Tamil Tigers and government have been engaged in fierce fighting in recent months. Navy commander DKP Dassanayake said the crew refused to identify the ship and then tried to escape. Navy intelligence indicated it was carrying artillery and missiles, he said. Rebel officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for the country's 3.2 million ethnic Tamil minority in the northeast, citing decades of discrimination by the Sinhalese majority.