Sri Lanka Presses Offensive After Rebels Bomb Oil Depots

Associated Press

The government pressed ahead Friday with its campaign to capture the stronghold of Tamil rebels who attacked the country's two main oil depots overnight.

A seven-member guerrilla squad blew up oil storage tanks in the capital, Colombo, before dawn Friday, sending thousands of people fleeing in panic and spewing columns of oily smoke into the air.

The fires caused more than $20 million in damages and lost oil, said Anil Obeysekere, chairman of Ceylon Petroleum Corp.

At least 23 soldiers and police officers and three rebels were killed in fighting around the depots, and 37 people, including a British journalist, were wounded. Four rebels and a rebel sympathizer were arrested.

Deputy Defense Minister Anuruddha Ratwatta told Parliament that the depot attacks would not halt the 4-day-old offensive in the rebel-held Jaffna Peninsula, 185 miles north of Colombo.

"Very soon we will capture Jaffna," he said. "We will complete our mission."

Since Tuesday, thousands of troops supported by tanks, warplanes and gunboats have advanced on the peninsula to try to capture the city of Jaffna, headquarters of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The Tigers are fighting for a Tamil homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. About 36,000 people have been killed in the 12-year-old insurgency.

While state media urged people to stay calm, thousands packed their suitcases and fled after the blasts at the oil depots. Many took refuge in temples or camped in the streets.

The depots store all the petroleum brought into Sri Lanka.

Columns of smoke illuminated by flames rose into the sky from two of five huge storage tanks at the main Kolonnawa storage depot, while a fire burned out of control at the smaller Orugodawatte tanks one mile away.

The loss of fuel was not expected to hinder the government offensive. But the government asked foreign airlines to avoid refueling in Colombo to prevent a shortage of aviation fuel, said P.M. Fernando, operations director of Colombo airport.

An afternoon shower dumped oily black rain on the city, and officials monitored the city's main water supply from the Kelani river for contamination. No problems were immediately reported, officials said.

The guerrillas have attacked civilian and economic targets in Colombo many times, particularly when fighting intensified on the front lines.

Tamils, who make up 18% of Sri Lanka's 17 million people, say the majority Sinhalese discriminate against them. Peace talks between the rebels and the government broke down in April after a three-month truce.

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