updated 5/11/2006 8:59:30 PM ET 2006-05-12T00:59:30

A sea battle launched by Tamil Tiger rebels in northern Sri Lanka left about 50 insurgents and 17 sailors dead or missing, in a sharp escalation of violence that shoved the country back onto the brink of civil war Friday.

Both the government and a team of European-led monitors accused the Tigers of violating the country's 2002 cease-fire accord with their attack that sank a navy patrol boat off the northern coast Thursday.

Government troops retaliated, downing five rebel boats and launching airstrikes on guerrilla-held territory, putting the severest strain yet on the 2002 accord between the Tigers and government that halted two decades of warfare.

"This is a very serious attack (by the Tigers), a blatant violation of the cease-fire agreement," government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told The Associated Press.

The Tigers, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, launched their attack in 15 small boats against a navy convoy escorting a troop carrier with 710 soldiers aboard, navy spokesman Cmdr. D.K.P. Dassanayake said.

"Navy fast-attack boats escorting the vessel engaged the Tiger boats, and one of them was destroyed by a suicide boat," he said.

There were 15 sailors and two officers on board the downed navy boat, and the Sri Lankan military Web site said the men were lost, meaning they were dead or missing.

Differing reports of casualties
At least 50 Tiger guerrillas were on five rebel boats that sank, and all were believed dead, Dassanayake said. But a pro-rebel Web site quoted unnamed rebel sources as saying that they lost only four guerrillas in the battle.

No independent verification of the casualty toll was immediately possible.

Meanwhile, rebel spokesman Daya Master said air force fighter planes "attacked two times, dropping bombs in our territory."

The bombs fell a few kilometers from Kilinochchi, he said by telephone from the rebels' stronghold in the town, 275 kilometers (170 miles) north of Colombo.

Rambukwella, the government spokesman, said the airstrikes were necessary to "ensure the safety of our personnel," adding that if the rebels stopped their attacks the government also would halt attacks.

Truce monitor: ‘Reckless behavior’
The European-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission said a truce monitor was in the troop carrier with the soldiers when it was attacked, and that the group considered it to be a violation of the 2002 cease-fire and a direct threat to their peace mission.

"This sort of reckless behavior can only lead to a dangerous escalation resulting in growing hostilities and jeopardizing any possibility for future peace talks," the monitors said in a statement.

More than 150 people have died in escalating violence since the beginning of April, and recent attempts to restart stalled peace talks have failed.

The Tigers began fighting in 1983 to create a separate state for ethnic minority Tamils, accusing the majority Sinhalese of discrimination. More than 65,000 people died in the conflict before the 2002 truce.

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