Eleven Sri Lankan soldiers killed in battle with Tamil rebels, military says
Sat September 9, 2006 08:34 EDT .
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Sri Lankan soldiers backed by air strikes and artillery fire launched a fresh attack on ethnic Tamil rebels in the country's embattled north, leaving 11 troops dead and 53 wounded, a defense official said Saturday, as the country edged closer to all-out war.
The fighting in northern Jaffna comes less than a week after the army claimed to have routed Tamil Tigers from Sampur, a rebel-held village in the northeast, and despite a 2002 cease-fire.
While neither side has withdrawn from the truce, weeks of escalating battles along borders separating rebel- and government-held territory in the northeast have left it in tatters.
The Tigers have threatened retaliation and a resumption of war unless the army withdraws from Sampur.
The military pounded rebel-held territory in the north with air strikes and artillery after Tamil Tigers stepped up their attacks on government troops, military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said Saturday.
``The (rebels) began attacking us with artillery fire on Thursday. We have been retaliating since then. This is a limited operation to neutralize their artillery bases,'' Samarasinghe said.
He said 11 soldiers had been killed and at least 53 wounded. He had no details about rebel casualties.
The government's Media Center for National Security said air strikes and multi-barreled rocket fire took out the rebels' heavy artillery bases before ground troops moved in early Saturday.
The pro-rebel TamilNet Web site said the military has been shelling rebel bunkers in Muhamalai, at the base of the army-controlled Jaffna peninsula for two days. It said there were no rebel casualties.
Jaffna has long been a flash point for violence in Sri Lanka's 19-year war between the Sinhalese-dominated state and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who claim it as the cultural homeland of the country's 3.2 million ethnic Tamil minority.
The Tigers want to carve out a separate state for predominantly Hindu Tamils, citing decades of discrimination by the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
The conflict _ one of Asia's longest running _ cost the lives of about 65,000 people before the truce, which most here now say exists on paper only.
Hundreds of combatants and civilians have been killed and about 220,000 displaced since April, when the military launched air strikes on rebel territory in northeast Trincomalee in retaliation for a failed suicide attempt on the life of a top-ranking general.
Clashes broke out again in late July in Trincomalee over a water source blocked by the rebels, sparking three weeks of fierce fighting and an army ground offensive.
Then, on Aug. 11, the Tigers made a major push to retake Jaffna.
Although the government claimed to have beaten back the rebels in 11-days, sporadic artillery fire across the northern border and government airstrikes on rebel bases have continued.
Transport to and from the peninsula also remains cut, stranding thousands of people, including foreign aid workers, students and businesspeople, and leaving the region short of food, medicine and other basic goods.
A naval ship carrying 795 civilians from Jaffna reached the northeastern port of Trincomalee late Saturday, the military said.
The ship was not flying the flag of the International Committee of the Red Cross, as a previous ferry evacuating foreign nationals had, and TamilNet accused the government of using civilians as ``human shields'' to move military goods to Trincomalee.
Four fast attack navy craft escorted the ship as it traveled from Jaffna down the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka, the Web site said.
The Tamil Tigers have said they cannot guarantee the safety of sea or air transport to and from Jaffna in light of the military's ongoing operations.
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Published: Sat Sep 9 09:27:54 EDT 2006