Friday, July 20, 2007

15 killed in fighting in Sri Lanka

Commandos of the Sri Lankan army march during a celebration ceremony held to mark the captivity of the last stronghold of Tamil Tigers in the Eastern Province, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, July 19, 2007. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse said Thursday he will not be deterred by threats by separatist Tamil Tiger rebels and vowed to continue to weaken them militarily. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Separatist Tamil rebels attacked a military post in northern Sri Lanka with mortars and gunfire early Friday, sparking an hourlong battle that killed at least 12 combatants. Later, soldiers killed three rebels in the country's east.

The attacks came a day after the government held a formal military ceremony celebrating its recapture of the east from the rebels. The Tamil rebels, who still control a virtual state in the north, have vowed to retaliate for the military's offensive in the east.

About 2:30 a.m. Friday, the rebels struck, attacking soldiers guarding the front lines in the Mannar district separating government-held areas from rebel territory in the north.

The military repelled the attack, which killed three soldiers and wounded four others, said Lt. Col. Upali Rajapakse, a senior military officer. He said troops killed at least nine rebels and wounded 24.

However, rebels said they killed 10 soldiers and lost only four of their fighters. It was not possible to reconcile the conflicting death tolls given by the two sides. Each often inflates the other's casualties and lowers its own.

Rebel military spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan said the attack on the army post was meant as a pre-emptive strike. "This camp was causing a lot of harassment to our fighters," he said.

Steinar Sveinsson, a spokesman for the Scandinavian mission monitoring a tattered 2002 truce, said he had no information about the latest clash.

Also Friday, army troops killed three rebels in the eastern Batticaloa district, said a military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The official said the insurgents were fleeing the Thoppigala wilderness, which was captured by government forces last week.

Fighting between the government and the rebels has spiked over the last 20 months, though neither side has formally withdrawn from the 2002 cease-fire.

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, a predominantly Hindu group that has faced decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese-controlled governments. About 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

Heavy fighting grips Sri Lanka after victory parade

A handout photo released by Sri Lanka's Ministry of Defence shows a soldier standing guard in the backdrop of the Thoppigala jungle area, 13 July 2006. Government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels were locked in combat in northwest Sri Lanka with both sides claiming they had inflicted heavy casualties on the other.

Government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels were locked in combat in northwest Sri Lanka on Friday with both sides claiming they had inflicted heavy casualties on the other.

The rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched the pre-dawn attack on army defences in Mannar district, the defence ministry said in a statement.

Three government soldiers were killed and another four were wounded, the ministry said. It placed rebel losses at nine killed and 20 wounded.

The Tigers said they mounted the attack against a military base which had been shelling nearby villagers, and claimed they had killed at least ten soldiers.

"The mini-camp (of the military) had been harassing the civilians by shelling nearby villages," the LTTE said in a statement.

"The Sri Lanka armed forces personnel manning the mini-camp fled the scene, leaving behind 10 dead bodies, weapons, military equipment and ammunition."

The latest attack came a day after the government celebrated the capture of the final bastion of the LTTE in the east of the island with a victory parade.

The Tigers have been fighting for a separate state for minority Tamils for 35 years, a conflict that has claimed over 60,000 lives.