April 23, 2008 / 1:46 PM / 11 years ago

Dozens killed in heavy fighting in north Sri Lanka

(Adds rebel statement)

By Ranga Sirilal

COLOMBO, April 23 (Reuters) - Dozens of Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels were killed in heavy fighting in the north of the island on Wednesday, with air force jets bombing rebel positions.

The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) said 52 rebels and 38 soldiers were killed in the clashes in the Jaffna Peninsula on the island’s northern tip. The Tigers said they had repulsed a government assault, killing more than 100 soldiers and only 16 rebels died.

Fighting between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has intensified since the government formally pulled out of a 6-year-old ceasefire pact in January, though a renewed civil war has been raging since 2006.

"LTTE terrorists came and attacked our forward line this morning, we have retaliated and captured about 400 to 500 metres of LTTE area in Muhamalai," said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara.

The Air force said fighter jets bombed rebel artillery positions and a rebel regrouping position and MI-24 helicopter gunships attacked the rebels in support of the ground troops.

The Tigers, fighting for an independent state in the north and east, said they have thwarted a large-scale Sri Lankan Army attempt to overrun rebel positions on a 7 km (4.4 miles) wide front.

"The SLA formation fell back to their earlier positions with heavy casualties," said Tamil Tiger rebel military spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiraiyan in an emailed statement, adding 16 rebels also died from the fighting.

"The SLA suffered more than 100 KIA (killed in action) and about 400 WIA (wounded in action). In the clearing operations, 20 SLA dead bodies were found and are to be sent back to relatives."

The Tigers earlier said in an emailed statement that they had repulsed another government assault in Jaffna on Tuesday.

"At Muhamalai front in Jaffna, heavy clashes erupted when the SLA battle units made an attempt to overrun LTTE fortifications," Ilanthiraiyan said. "The SLA teams were beaten back in a 30-minute repulse by the valiant LTTE defenders."

Analysts say both the government and rebels often inflate enemy death tolls and play down their own losses. The reports are rarely possible to verify independently.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has pledged to destroy the Tigers militarily.

After driving the rebels from the east, the armed forces are focusing on Tiger-held areas in north, intensifying fighting in the civil war that has killed an estimated 70,000 people since 1983. Thousands have been killed in recent months.

The rebels have hit back with bombings in Colombo and elsewhere in the relatively peaceful south of the island when they have come under military pressure in the past.

Analysts say the military has the upper hand in the latest phase of the war, given superior air power, strength of numbers and swathes of terrain captured in the island’s east.

But they see no clear final winner and say the rebels still retain the capability to strike back, despite high security and military gains. (Reporting By Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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