Colombo - Tamil Tiger rebels carried out a suicide bombing against a merchant vessel transporting food and other essentials to Sri Lanka's embattled northern Jaffna peninsula on Monday, officials here said.

Members of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rammed an explosive-laden boat into the Mercs Uhana which was approaching the Jaffna peninsula early on Monday, officials said.

They said the ship was badly damaged after the attack, but all 21 crew were rescued.

Official sources said the ship was carrying a cargo of food for private traders in the Jaffna peninsula.

The attack came three weeks after the Tigers carried out a similar attack against a navy gun boat in the same area, killing 21 sailors and losing 13 of their own fighters.

Government forces depend on a vital sea route to Jaffna to keep up supplies to both security forces and nearly half a million Tamil civilians in the region because the land route to the peninsula is held by the rebels.

The Mercs Uhana was attacked near the island's northernmost point of Point Pedro where cargo is sometimes unloaded at a small port.

The Tigers had in recent weeks shelled the main sea port of Kankesanthurai, forcing cargo to be unloaded at the smaller and ill-equipped Point Pedro port. - Sapa-AFP