Sri Lankan fighter jets pound rebel areas; Tigers say military launched major offensive battle
Wed October 11, 2006 06:12 EDT .
Associated Press Writer
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Fighter jets pounded Tamil Tiger positions in northern Sri Lanka on Wednesday in what the rebels said was a major offensive. The military said 22 soldiers had been killed, along with a ``large number'' of insurgents in fierce fighting it claimed was defensive.
Security forces had been ``forced to retaliate,'' using heavy artillery and rockets, after sporadic attacks by rebels since Tuesday along the de facto border separating government and rebel-held areas near Muhamalai, on the Jaffna peninsula, the Media Center for National Security said.
It said the air force and navy had helped ``neutralize and destroy identified Tiger concentrations and reinforcements by the sea.''
The fighting killed 22 soldiers and a ``large number'' of rebels, it said, adding that 113 troops were wounded.
A rebel spokesman said he could not comment on the casualty figures.
Witnesses said civil servants and students living close to the battlefield were forced to return home, fearing the fighting could leave them stranded in the north. Bus services into Thennamarachchi and Chavakachcheri areas in the south of the peninsula have been stopped, they said.
``They have begun a large-scale operation along the northern defense line,'' the Tiger's military spokesman, Irasiah Ilanthirayan, told The Associated Press by telephone from the northern rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi.
He said the military started shelling rebel positions late Tuesday night and that ground troops had advanced across their front line early Wednesday.
``They are advancing from all around the defense line,'' Ilanthirayan said.
Military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said the rebels started attacking army positions overnight.
``The air force launched strikes on Tamil Tiger positions to neutralize their attack,'' Samarasinghe said.
He did not say what damage the attacks caused, adding that the air strikes had now ended.
The battle comes after the rebels' political chief Suppiah Thamilselvan on Tuesday agreed to attend peace talks with the government later this month. The Norwegian government _ which brokered a 2002 cease-fire agreement _ said Tuesday that the talks are scheduled to be held in Switzerland on Oct. 28-29.
Thamilselvan, who met Tuesday with Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar, warned, however, that the rebels could withdraw from talks if military aggression continues.
It was not immediately clear how the latest military action would affect the peace talks.
Palitha Kohona, the chief of the government's peace secretariat, said ``the government has not launched any offensive in Jaffna.'' The government routinely maintains that its military operations are defensive, and not in violation of the cease-fire.
A spokesman for the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission said they could not comment on whether a major offensive has begun as they have no first-hand information. The team, which was set up to oversee the cease-fire, recently closed down many of their local offices citing an unstable security situation.
A pro-rebel Web site reported Tuesday that the army had rushed rockets, mortar shells and other military hardware to its forward defense lines on Jaffna peninsula.
The TamilNet report said truck loads of military hardware were moved Monday from Palali, the army's main Jaffna base, closer to areas in the south of the peninsula which are controlled by the rebels.
The rebels' political wing said at the weekend that reliable intelligence suggested the military was preparing to launch a major attack on rebel and civilian settlements in the Tamil-majority north under a scorched-earth policy.
The military controls almost all of the Jaffna peninsula, but small pockets are held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which claim the peninsula as the cultural heart of the country's ethnic Tamil minority.
The rebels made a major push to retake the peninsula on Aug. 12.
Dozens of combatants have been killed since last week in fighting in northeastern Sri Lanka. About 1,500 people have died in increasingly heavy fighting since February.
The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority in the north and east, citing decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. About 65,000 people were killed before a 2002 cease-fire.
Discuss this story
Published: Wed Oct 11 08:01:05 EDT 2006