(Updates with Tiger comment, details)
By Simon Gardner
COLOMBO, Dec 26 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s navy battled a flotilla of Tamil Tiger boats off the island’s northwest tip on Wednesday, destroying 11 rebel vessels including two suicide boats and killing an estimated 40 insurgents, the military said.
A dozen navy fast-attack craft sank four of the rebel vessels, helicopter gunships and Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets sank another five and two rebel suicide vessels were destroyed when they rammed a navy boat which was badly damaged.
"They were involved in arms smuggling," said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara.
"In total, 11 Tiger boats were destroyed. We can’t say exactly, but we estimate around 40 Tigers were killed," he added, saying the battle near Delft island off the northern Jaffna peninsula had lasted at least four hours.
The military gave no details of any navy casualties from the clash, the latest in a series of land and sea battles.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who have fought for an independent state in the north and east since the war erupted in 1983, said they sank one navy attack boat, and badly damaged another.
They said four of their suicide fighters died in the clash, but did not specify how many of their boats were damaged or sunk.
There were no independent accounts of what had happened.
Nanayakkara said the remaining five rebel boats sped back to Tiger-controlled territory. The clash came as thousands of Sri Lankans marked the third anniversary of the 2004 tsunami, which battered two-thirds of the island’s coastline and left 35,000 dead or missing.
Troops killed 11 rebels in a series of unrelated land clashes in the Jaffna peninsula and northern district of Vavuniya, the army said.
The military has reported killing hundreds of Tigers in recent weeks, with the death toll from renewed fighting well over 5,000 since early last year.
However, analysts say both sides tend to exaggerate enemy losses and play down their own.
In a separate incident off the northeast coast, the navy detained the crew of an Indonesian-registered ship drifting about 90 nautical miles off the coast, suspecting they could be involved in smuggling arms for the rebels.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has vowed to destroy the Tigers militarily and to clear the rebels from territory they control in the island’s north after capturing their eastern strongholds earlier this year.
Military analysts say there is no clear winner on the horizon, and fear a war in which around 70,000 people have been killed over a quarter-century could grind on for years. (Editing by David Fogarty