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Battle for Sri Lankan rebel headquarters rages
(Adds air strikes)
By C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Sri Lankan troops assaulted the outskirts of the separatist Tamil Tigers' self-proclaimed capital on Wednesday, the military said, a day after both sides said they killed more than 100 in a series of confrontations.
For a second day, troops launched coordinated assaults on the lines of trenches and earthen "bunds", or bunkers, that the Tigers have built encircling their headquarters town of Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka, the military said.
As dawn broke before the ground assault, air force jets and Mi-24 attack helicopters bombed and rocketed multiple bunkers and locations around Kilinochchi's periphery and on the main road running through it, the air force said.
Kilinochchi is a strategic target of a government increasingly confident of ending the 25-year conflict, after having made the most battlefield progress by any Sri Lankan administration so far in one of Asia's longest civil wars.
"They are fighting in about five directions toward that bund, and we are trying to expand our locations from there," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
"This bund is, from the west, about 5 km (3 miles) from town. From the south it is almost hugging the town limits. So now we are in the town limits and we are attacking the southern edge of the town," he said.
In what was one of the bloodiest single days since the military renewed its offensive in January after President Mahinda Rajapaksa threw out a poorly observed 2002 truce, soldiers carried out four coordinated assaults on Kilinochchi on Tuesday.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) initially said they killed 40 soldiers, but later upped the number to 130, the pro-rebel website TamilNet.com reported. That came after the military said it had killed 120 rebels and lost 25 soldiers.
"More than 300 soldiers were wounded in the heavy battle that raged throughout the day till 4 p.m. on Tuesday on four main localities and along a wide stretch of the Kilinochchi frontiers," TamilNet quoted the Tigers' peace secretariat director S. Puleedevan as saying.
Nanayakkara denied the casualty count given by the LTTE, saying 25 soldiers had died. The number of missing soldiers had risen to 18 from 10, and those wounded remained at 160.
Verifying battlefield statistics is difficult since both sides bar independent access to the areas of the war zone they control. Both sides have routinely distorted the figures to their advantage in the past.
Analysts and allies say the war progress has energised Rajapaksa's political base, and is good cause to call early elections to capitalise on that while sidestepping criticism of his administration's handling of Sri Lanka's $32 billion economy.
Standard & Poor's Ratings Services on Monday lowered Sri Lanka's sovereign rating from B-plus to B, five notches below investment grade on declining foreign currency reserves and a high fiscal deficit.
The war accounts for almost a fifth of Sri Lanka's budget, increasingly funded by expensive foreign debt that has become scarce amid the global slowdown. Next year, defence spending is forecast at a record 200 billion rupees ($1.79 billion).
The LTTE began fighting the government in 1983, saying it was battling for the rights of Tamils against mistreatment by successive governments led by the Sinhalese majority since Sri Lanka won independence from Britain in 1948.
But since then, it has landed on U.S., E.U. and Indian terrorism lists because of scores of suicide bombings and assassinations of politicians, civilians and rival Tamil figures.
For a related story on possible scenarios in the war, click on [nCOL424109]. ($1 = 111.80 Sri Lankan rupees) (Editing by Sugita Katyal)
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