COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Seventeen members of Sri Lanka's largest Tamil rebel group who were arrested on murder charges swallowed hidden cyanide capsules Monday in front of government troops at a military airfield in northern Sri Lanka. Twelve died, military sources said.
The sources said the surviving five Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels were reported in critical condition after their stomachs were pumped.
The mass suicide attempt by the rebels occurred on the tarmac of the Palaly military airfield on the Jaffna Peninsula as the rebels were being escorted to an aircraft for a flight to the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo to face murder charges, the sources said.
The 17 were arrested Saturday aboard an armed trawler intercepted by a Sri Lankan naval patrol off the northern Jaffna town of Velvetturai.
The murder charges were in connection with the group's battles against rival guerrilla groups, apparently aimed at preserving the Liberation Tigers' dominance following a peace accord signed by Sri Lanka and India on July 29 designed to end Sri Lanka's four-year-old civil war. At least 120 people were killed in the rival fighting.
Members of the Liberation Tigers, the largest and most defiant of the rebel groups demanding the creation of an independent Tamil nation in Sri Lanka's northern and northeastern provinces, are known to wear cyanide capsules around their necks for use to avoid interrogation if captured.
On Sunday, President Junius R. Jayewardene said he would withdraw Indian peacekeeping troops from the port town of Trincomalee if the forces do not establish law and order in eastern Sri Lanka.
Indian Foreign Ministry officials in New Delhi, however, denied that the Sri Lankan leader had issued the ultimatum, saying, "The government press release is at variance with what actually transpired." They said Sri Lankan security forces had tried to provoke Indian troops.
A Sri Lankan government statement said that the 9,000 Indian troops deployed under the July pact would be ordered out of Trincomalee if they do not enforce the peace.
At least 21 people have died since Wednesday in clashes between mainly Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils in the crucial port town, 160 miles northeast of Colombo.