The military backpedaled Thursday from accusations that Tamil rebels downed a military plane carrying 63 people, saying human or technical error was probably to blame.
The Antonov-32 transport plane crashed Wednesday into the Indian Ocean as it approached Palali air base, the staging point for a 5-week-old offensive against the rebel stronghold of Jaffna city.
On Thursday, searchers spotted the tail of the plane sticking out of the water, 10 miles off Jaffna Peninsula, the air force’s No. 2 man said.
“There is no evidence so far to suggest that it (the crash) was due to enemy activity,” Air Vice Marshal Anselm Peiris said. “That is the least likely option.”
The cause of the crash was probably pilot error or a technical problem, he said, but gave no evidence to substantiate his claim.
Naval divers recovered the body of a soldier, part of a wing, an oxygen bottle, an air crew bag, and several books.
The aircraft carried 52 soldiers and five airmen bound for the front, as well as three crew members and three civilians.
Tamil gunners shot down a Y-8 military plane in the same area on Saturday, killing five of the six crewmen.
With thousands of troops ringing Jaffna city, President Chandrika Kumaratunga urged the separatists on Thursday to resume negotiations to end their 12-year-old war.
“We must negotiate a lasting political solution. Then, and only then, can we ensure a lasting peace for us and our children,” Mrs. Kumaratunga said on state radio.
That solution, she said, must resolve the grievances of the minority Tamil community, which claims widespread discrimination by majority Sinhalese.
Last month, the military launched its largest offensive against the rebels since they took up arms, and on Monday, government troops entered Jaffna city for the first time in five years.
Government forces were on the verge of capturing the rebel stronghold, Mrs. Kumaratunga said Thursday.
In a late-night interview to staterun television, Mrs. Kumaratunga said “there has never been a better chance for peace.
“If we do not make use of this opportunity, the war may drag on for years,” she said.
Seventeen soldiers and 100 rebels were killed Wednesday as troops continued their advance, said Brig. Sarath Munasinghe, the military spokesman.
Mrs. Kumaratunga came to power in August 1994 on the strength of her promise to negotiate an end to the rebels’ war for an independent homeland in the north and east.
Talks began in October of that year, but broke down three months later when the rebels walked out.
A rebel offensive in April shattered a shaky truce, and the government moved to smash the rebellion.