A Sri Lankan naval vessel was captured by the Indian Coast Guard today following a series of incidents in the narrow Palk Strait separating the two countries.
An Indian government spokesman said the Sri Lankan Navy patrol boat was captured while fleeing Indian territorial waters after attacking Indian fishing boats and stealing catches of shrimp. The seven crew members, armed with automatic rifles and light machine guns, were being held in the Indian coastal town of Rameswaram, according to Indian news agencies.
[Sri Lanka's embassy in New Delhi said the patrol boat "was apprehended while it was performing its legitimate duties within Sri Lankan territorial waters," Reuter reported.]
The capture followed an escalation of clashes in the strait between Indian and Sri Lankan vessels, but it was the first time that the Indians seized a Sri Lankan Navy boat.
On Tuesday, the Indian government lodged a strong protest with Sri Lanka over the killing of two Indian fishermen in Indian territorial waters Monday night. Indian officials said two Indian fishing boats were fired on by a Sri Lankan patrol boat and an airplane off the coastal town of Dhanushkedi, and that in a third incident an Indian fisherman was beaten severely by Sri Lankan sailors who boarded his boat.
The Sri Lankan Navy has stepped up patrols in the narrow Palk Strait in recent months in an effort to intercept Tamil separatist guerrillas moving between the Indian coastal state of Tamil Nadu and the northern Sri Lankan province of Jaffna, where government troops have been battling Tamil insurgents.
Sri Lanka has charged that the guerrillas are being armed and trained in southern India, and that Tamil Nadu is being used as a sanctuary by insurgents fleeing government security forces in Jaffna. India has denied that Tamil training bases are operating freely in Tamil Nadu, although Indian officials have conceded privately that separatist guerrillas can move easily across the 20-mile strait and blend into the state's predominantly Tamil population.
Rameswaram was reported to be tense following the most recent clashes, with fishermen holding a general strike and conducting demonstrations demanding Indian Coast Guard action against the Sri Lankan naval vessels. Earlier this week, fishermen set fire to a railway car and damaged track to protest the attacks on fishing boats.
Indian fishermen had been warned to stay out of the Palk Strait following the sinking of an Indian trawler in early December, but when an Indian Coast Guard vessel was deployed for protection, they resumed operations on Dec. 10.
The United News of India reported that Indian fishing boats circled the Sri Lankan vessel as it was being escorted into Rameswaram, jeering at the uniformed Sri Lankan seamen. The Coast Guard said it recovered fishing nets and about 1,000 pounds of shrimp that the Sri Lankans had seized from the Indian fishermen.