January 17, 2009 / 10:18 AM / 11 years ago

Sri Lanka rebels say kill 51 troops but army says lost 7

COLOMBO (Reuters) — Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels said they killed 51 soldiers while repelling an army assault, a pro-rebel website reported Saturday, in an account which the military rejected.

Medical staff talk to an ethnic minority Tamil man, who was injured by heavy combat between Tamil tigers and government solders in rebel territory, at a hospital in Vavuniya, about 260km (160 miles) north of Colombo, January 16, 2009. A hospital spokesperson said 12 ethnic Tamil civilians who were injured during fighting between Tamil Tigers and government soldiers were brought to the hospital. REUTERS/Stringer

The rebel claim comes as Sri Lanka’s military, energized by two major strategic victories since the new year, is converging on the Tiger’s final strongholds across a small wedge of northeastern Sri Lanka, to finish a war that started in 1983.

With the rebels cornered in a fast-shrinking area with what aid groups say are about 230,000 civilians, the flood of refugees fleeing has increased. The military said 169 went to army-held areas Friday, bringing the total this week to at least 2,200.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) media unit said the guerrillas fought back an advance on Dharmapuram village Friday, killed 51 soldiers and wounded 150, the pro-rebel www.TamilNet.com web site reported.

It published pictures of what it said was one dead Sri Lankan soldier, Tiger fighters on a BMP-1 amphibious armoured vehicle and others of guerrillas.

The military denied the TamilNet account.

“Our troops have passed Dharmapuram, so that is not true,” military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. “In yesterday’s fighting the LTTE lost 21 fighters and we lost only seven.”

The Tigers had seized a BMP-1 far back in the war, he said.

Air force jets Saturday blasted a defence line near the port of Mullaittivu, which is the last major town the LTTE holds, Nanayakkara said.

Both sides have repeatedly in the past distorted battlefield figures to their advantage, and verification is all but impossible, as the Tigers and the army seal off access to the war zone by independent journalists.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Friday said it feared for the safety of civilians amid the unrelenting assaults and air strikes. TamilNet has increasingly reported on civilian casualties, but the government denies that.

Friday, U.N. Humanitarian Chief John Holmes echoed the ICRC’s concerns about those trapped in the war zone.

“The U.N. calls upon the LTTE to allow civilians to be able to move freely to areas where they feel most secure and for the government to receive newly displaced people according to internationally agreed principles,” he said in a statement.

Rights groups have accused the LTTE of forcing Tamil civilians to stay in the war zone to be conscripts or labourers. The LTTE denies that.

The Tigers are on U.S., E.U. and Indian terrorism lists after carrying out hundreds of assassinations and suicide bombings, including against Tamils who challenged them.

The LTTE say they are fighting to address mistreatment of minority Tamils since the Sinhalese ethnic majority took over at independence from Britain in 1948. But many Sinhalese say Tamils enjoyed unfair advantages in colonial times and want them back.

Editing by Valerie Lee

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