Fierce battle in east Sri Lanka kills 64 combatants on both sides, military says
Mon December 11, 2006 05:48 EST .
BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI - Associated Press Writer - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) Tamil Tiger rebels and Sri Lankan troops exchanged artillery and mortar fire during a fierce daylong battle in the country's east that left at least 64 combatants dead, the military said Monday.
An officer at the government's Media Center for National Security said 24 soldiers were killed and 69 wounded in Sunday's battle with the insurgents in the eastern Batticaloa district.
Forty rebels were also killed in the clash, the officer said speaking on condition of anonymity due to policy.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan said, however, that at least seven rebel fighters died in the clashes.
The military said guerrillas mounted artillery attacks on four army locations in Batticaloa district, prompting soldiers to launch retaliatory attack.
Sunday's fighting came a day after thousands of ethnic Sinhalese fled from their homes to escape violence in neighboring Trincomalee district.
Tamil Tigers said in an e-mail statement that 19 civilians were killed by army artillery fire Sunday, a day after 22 Tamil civilians reportedly died from military shelling.
The military, however, accused the Tigers of holding Tamil civilians as human shields.
Independent verification of the incidents was not possible because reporters and aid workers are not allowed into the area.
After a fierce battle in Trincomalee district on Saturday, at least 3,000 Sinhalese civilians 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.
Maj. Upali Rajapakse said five civilians died and 16 more were wounded by shells fired from rebel areas into ethnic Sinhalese villages in Trincomalee, prompting civilians to leave their homes.
Civilian casualties have mounted in recent clashes between government forces and the guerrillas, while both sides have denied responsibility.
Meanwhile in the capital Colombo on Monday, about 5,000 people participated in a rally demanding the government ban the Tamil Tiger rebels.
The protesters held placards which read ``Shame for daydreaming a political solution,'' and ``Shame for persisting with cease-fire agreement.''
A 2002 cease-fire between the government and Tamil Tigers officially stands despite the soaring violence. Soon after the cease-fire was signed, the government lifted a four-year ban of the Tigers to facilitate peace talks, which later ended in failure.
The rebels are banned in India, United States, European Union and Canada.
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.
Published: Mon Dec 11 07:20:45 EST 2006