Military offensive in northeast Sri Lanka leaves at least 28 dead
Mon August 28, 2006 10:35 EDT .
Associated Press Writer
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Sri Lanka's armed forces launched airstrikes and fired artillery as they advanced Monday on a strategic Tamil Tiger-held enclave, killing at least 28 people, the military and rebels said.
The military said eight soldiers were killed and 28 wounded as ground troops backed by air force jets battled their way toward rebel-held Sampur, to the south of the strategic Trincomalee port.
The insurgents said at least 20 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed.
``There was heavy shelling and aerial bombardment, 20 civilians were killed and 26 injured,'' rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiraiyan told The Associated Press.
But military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said the airstrikes targeted artillery bases. ``We have killed no civilians. I don't think any civilian lives there.''
It is virtually impossible to independently confirm casualty reports because conflict zones are restricted to outsiders, and European monitors of the 2002 truce have closed their eastern Trincomalee office, citing deteriorating security.
By Monday evening, the military had already advanced one kilometer (0.6 mile) inside rebel territory, said the spokesman for the monitors, Thorfinnur Omarsson, citing reports from the insurgents.
The push to retake Sampur opens a new front in the more than two-decade conflict between ethnic Tamil rebels and the Sinhalese-dominated government.
The combined army, navy and air force operation launched Sunday was intended to safeguard the strategic Trincomalee harbor and navy base, the country's top-ranking military official, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, told The Associated Press.
He said the insurgents have been using four villages south of Trincomalee to fire artillery and mortars at the base.
``The security forces have taken this decision to retake Muttur, Kaddaiparichchan, Sampur and Thoppur to safeguard Trincomalee naval base and the harbor,'' Fonseka said.
``If the (rebels) continue to attack the harbor it will paralyze the Trincomalee to Jaffna supply route,'' the general said.
The Sri Lankan military is reliant upon the Trincomalee port to supply its more than 43,000 troops on Jaffna Peninsula, as the road link passes through rebel territory.
The general, who narrowly escaped a suspected Tamil suicide attack in April, said the air force was carrying out targeted strikes, while the navy would patrol the coast to prevent the Tigers from bringing reinforcements by boat.
The Tigers took up arms in 1983, claiming that the country's 3.2 million Tamils needed a separate homeland away from the discrimination of the majority Sinhalese.
The resulting conflict cost the lives of at least 65,000 people before the 2002 cease-fire halted large-scale fighting.
In recent months, however, Sri Lanka has returned to the brink of full-scale war, with both sides launching major military offensives, although neither has officially withdrawn from the cease-fire.
Hundreds of combatants and civilians have been killed since late July, and 204,000 people have been displaced by near-daily airstrikes and shelling.
The government insists that its operation to retake Sampur is purely defensive and cannot be considered a violation of the cease-fire.
``We are still committed to the peace process,'' government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told the AP on Monday. ``We have always said that we want peace, not war.''
Associated Press reporter Krishan Francis contributed to this report.
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Published: Mon Aug 28 12:52:57 EDT 2006