COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Fighting between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels escalated sharply yesterday, with as many as 47 people killed in the violence.
About a dozen guerrilla boats masquerading as fishing craft attacked Sri Lankan navy vessels off the northwest islet of Mannar, sinking three, said Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe, a military spokesman. The bodies of three sailors were recovered, while eight others were missing and feared dead.
The navy said it sank eight rebel boats, killing 30 fighters on board. The rebels denied the account, saying that only two of their fighters had been wounded and none lost, the pro-rebel TamilNet Web site said.
The navy called in Mi-24 helicopter gunships for support, but they were unable to fire because civilians were too close, Samarasinghe said.
He said that the Tigers had also fired mortar shells at navy and police posts on land around Mannar and that at least six civilians, including five fishermen, were killed in the crossfire. Other bursts of fighting were reported in villages in the area.
About the time of the sea battle, the police arrested three people suspected of being rebel commandos just outside Colombo, the capital. The men, two of whom chewed cyanide capsules in suicide attempts, were arrested in their diving gear after the police were alerted by fishermen who had seen explosions in the water, said the local police chief, Chandra Fernando.
He said the men were suspected of being on a mission to attack a naval patrol.
The fighting occurred hours after the Sri Lankan air force halted two days of airstrikes on rebel posts in retaliation for a land mine blast Thursday that killed 64 civilians on a bus. The government has blamed the Tigers for the deaths, but the rebels have said the deaths were caused by government troops.
A February 2002 cease-fire remains only on paper, with more than 500 deaths reported in fighting since April, European cease-fire monitors said.
"If people are killing each other, it's not a cease-fire -- but the cease-fire agreement is still valid," said Thorfinnur Omarsson, a spokesman for the monitors. "We have strongly urged the parties to pull back."
The rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, warned yesterday of retaliation after the airstrikes Thursday and Friday.
"The Tamil leadership has forwarded a stern warning to Colombo that the LTTE would be forced to retaliate," S.P. Thamilselvan, the rebels' political chief, was quoted as saying on TamilNet.
Many analysts fear that a return to all-out civil war is near.
"A full-scale war is imminent," said Jehan Perera, a political analyst of the National Peace Council, an independent research organization. "The next stage would be when the LTTE takes on a big military garrison."
The fighting yesterday terrorized civilians in Pesalai, a village north of Mannar.
A 70-year-old woman was killed, and dozens were injured when a grenade was hurled into a Roman Catholic church in the village by unidentified attackers, witnesses said. Hundreds of people had piled into the church compound for safety amid the fighting.
"It was a very shocking incident," said the Rev. Vincent Patrick, a parish priest who was interviewed by telephone. About 40 fishing boats along the shore were also torched, he said.
Mercy Josephine was among those who crouched on the floor of the church when she heard the sea battle raging close by. All the doors and windows of the building had been closed, except one for ventilation, she said. "That was the window they used to throw the bomb," she said.
Josephine said the attackers wore clothes "similar to those worn by the security forces." The Sri Lanka military denied involvement and said the Tigers were to blame.
"I am full of fear," she said. "We are not even safe in a church."