148 combatants killed in 5 days of heavy fighting, Sri Lankan military says
Mon September 11, 2006 04:06 EDT .
KRISHAN FRANCIS - Associated Press Writer - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) Sri Lankan forces and Tamil Tiger rebels exchanged mortar and artillery fire across their northern front lines on Monday, as the death toll from five days of heavy fighting rose to 148, the military said.
Government soldiers have advanced up to a kilometer (0.6 mile) into rebel territory in Muhamalai village on the northern Jaffna peninsula and captured the guerrillas' forward defense line, an official at the Media Center for National Security said.
Rebels fired mortar and artillery shells at the troops as they sought Monday to consolidate their gains, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing agency rules.
Military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said the number of government troops killed in the area since Thursday rose by five overnight to 33. The fighting also wounded 132 soldiers, he said.
The Defense Ministry's Web site said at least 115 Tamil Tigers had been killed a claim the rebels denied.
``Reports and monitored technical sources claimed that troops have inflicted heavy casualties and damage'' to the rebels, the ministry said.
Samarasinghe said the army had captured a forward bunker line used by the rebels to fire mortars at government troops.
But rebel official Seevarathnam Puleedevan denied that the Tigers' bunkers had been overrun and said they continued to resist the government troops. He said only six rebel fighters had died and 13 others were wounded.
Both sides are known to exaggerate each other's death tolls. Journalists have not been allowed to enter the area of fighting, and it was not possible to verify the casualty claims.
On Thursday, the rebels began firing artillery at troops manning defense lines in Muhamalai at the base of the army-controlled Jaffna peninsula, prompting military operations aimed at destroying the rebels' artillery positions, Samarasinghe said.
The fighting came less than a week after the army claimed to have routed the Tigers from Sampur, a rebel-held village in the northeast.
While neither side has formally withdrawn from a 2002 cease-fire, weeks of escalating battles along borders separating rebel- and government-held territory in the northeast have left it in tatters.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 Tigers, who fought a 19-year war against the government until the cease-fire, want to carve out a separate state for predominantly Hindu Tamils, citing decades of discrimination by the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
The conflict cost the lives of about 65,000 people before the truce.
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.
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Published: Mon Sep 11 04:32:58 EDT 2006