At least 90 killed in Sri Lanka battle

April 23, 2008 11:10:17 AM PDT
Tamil rebels and Sri Lankan troops fought one of their fiercest battles in years Wednesday, battering each other with small arms and mortars in a confrontation that the military said killed 52 guerrillas and 38 soldiers. The rebels claimed they killed more than 100 soldiers and lost only 16 of their fighters in a 10-hour firefight they characterized as a rout of the heavily armed government forces.

Either way, the battle was a serious blow to the government's promise to capture the Tamil Tigers' de facto state in the north, crush the rebel group and end the 25-year-old civil war in this Indian Ocean island nation by the end of the year. As with most battles, the two sides gave very different accounts.

The military said fighting broke out just before dawn when rebel forces overran government positions in the rugged Muhamalai region of the Jaffna peninsula, north of rebel-held territory.

Government troops fought back with small arms, mortars and tanks, eventually driving off the assault and launching a counteroffensive that pushed 500 yards into Tamil Tiger territory, the military spokesman, Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, said.

Soon after the ground fighting, air force jets and helicopters destroyed two rebel artillery positions and hit rebel bunkers in the area, the military said in a statement.

Nanayakkara said 38 government soldiers died and 84 suffered wounds. The toll was the worst suffered by the military since the government pulled out of a tattered cease-fire with the rebels in January and stepped up its attacks.

Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan accused the military of sparking the battle. "They attempted to get near our positions. That's when the clashes erupted," he told The Associated Press.

In a later statement e-mailed to reporters, Ilanthirayan said the fighting began about 2:30 a.m., when troops backed by armored vehicles and artillery batteries tried to capture rebel fortifications on the front line.

The guerrillas fought back in a battle that lasted past noon and eventually forced the troops to withdraw to their earlier positions, he said. The rebels counted more than 100 dead soldiers and about 500 wounded troops, he said. Sixteen rebels were killed, he said.

Both sides routinely inflate casualty figures for the other side and underreport their own losses. Independent accounts of the fighting are unavailable because journalists are barred from the war zone.

Fighting between the two sides has escalated since the government pulled out of a long-ignored cease-fire with the rebels and forced out the Nordic truce monitors who were some of the only observers with access to the war zone.

Senior government officials have vowed to destroy the rebel group by the end of the year, going so far as to erect billboards on major roads showing a map of Sri Lanka free of the Tamil Tiger's de facto state, with a simple promise: "2008."

But diplomats and other observers say the army is facing far more resistance than it expected, and government officials have begun appealing to Sri Lankans to have patience with the war effort.

The Tamil Tigers have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for ethnic Tamils, who have been marginalized for decades by successive governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

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Associated Press writer Krishan Francis contributed to this report.

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