3,000 ethnic Sinhalese flee eastern Sri Lanka amid rebel fire, official says
Sat December 9, 2006 11:55 EST .
KRISHAN FRANCIS - Associated Press Writer - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) A daylong artillery exchange Saturday between Sri Lanka - 's military and Tamil Tiger guerrillas in the island's east drove thousands of Sinhalese from their villages, an official said, while rebels said the clashes resulted in 30 government troop deaths.
The military said they only lost two soldiers, and both sides accused the other of causing civilian casualties.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan said the military advanced some two kilometers (1.2 miles) into a rebel territory in eastern Trincomalee district, which the guerrillas repulsed.
``We retaliated and pushed them back to their original positions. In the fight, 30 Sri Lankan forces including two officers were killed,'' he said.
An official at the government's security media center denied the rebel claims and said only two soldiers were killed in the clash and 30 more wounded.
It was impossible to reconcile the conflicting casualty figures and the two sides are known to exaggerate the numbers of casualties they inflict.
Amid these clashes, scores of ethnic Sinhalese civilians fled their homes in three villages and took shelter in Buddhist temples and schools, a local government official said.
At least 3,000 people from 750 families took shelter in two Buddhist temples and two schools in Kantale village some 30 kilometers (18 miles) southwest of Trincomalee town, said Sirimevan Dharmasena, the chief government bureaucrat in Kantale.
Meanwhile, the Tigers in an e-mail statement claimed that 15 ethnic Tamil refugees were killed when artillery shells hit a school where they had taken shelter after fleeing a previous clash.
Thirty five others were also hurt in the incident in Vaharai village in Batticaloa district, the rebel statement added.
An official at the government's security media center, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing policy, said he did not know if any refugees were hit.
Independent verification of the incident was not possible because reporters and aid workers are not allowed into the area.
The security official said however that three civilians and four soldiers in majority ethnic Sinhalese villages bordering the neighboring Trincomalee district were wounded by shells fired from rebel areas. Civilians casualties have mounted in recent clashes between government troops and the guerrillas while both sides have denied responsibility.
The Tigers have been fighting for more than 20 years for a separate homeland for the island nation's 3.1 million ethnic Tamil minority, citing decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.
The government says it is willing to give autonomy to areas where Tamils are in the majority in the north and northeast, but the rebels want sweeping changes that the government says will infringe on the country's sovereignty.
Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.
On the Net: www.peaceinsrilanka.org
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Published: Sat Dec 9 12:45:46 EST 2006