COLOMBO (Reuters) - Fourteen Tamil Tigers and a Sri Lankan soldier were killed in a series of firefights over the weekend and on Monday in the restive north, the military said as it began resettling 29,000 refugees in captured rebel terrain.
Troops killed seven Tigers in a fierce clash in the northern district of Vavuniya on Sunday, while six others were killed in separate incidents on Saturday. Troops shot dead one rebel early on Monday.
“In total, 14 Tiger cadres were killed since Saturday,” military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said. “We lost one of our soldiers.”
The Tigers were not immediately available for comment, but analysts say both sides have tended to overstate enemy losses and play down their own.
A senior Buddhist monk was also gunned down on Sunday in a temple in the northeastern district of Trincomalee, in an attack the rebels and government each blamed on the other.
Samarasinghe said troops started on Monday to resettle thousands of refugees along a coastal strip in the eastern district of Batticaloa, which was wrested from the Tigers in recent months.
Hundreds of displaced have already been sent back home in the neighbouring district of Trincomalee further north, where fighting was focused last year.
“We have commenced resettlement in Batticaloa. They are to be resettled in areas recaptured from the LTTE (Tigers),” Samarasinghe said.
International aid groups as well as United Nations agencies have voiced concern that the government is forcing some of more than 100,000 people currently living in camps or with relatives in Batticaloa to return home against their will to areas ravaged by fighting.
The death toll from a two-decade civil war that has killed nearly 70,000 people since 1983 is rising daily, and analysts and diplomats fear a conflict that has displaced over 500,000 people will escalate.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has flatly rejected Tiger demands for an independent state in the island’s north and east and his government has vowed to wipe out the Tigers militarily.
The Tigers have laughed off devolution proposals made by Rajapaksa’s majority-Sinhalese ruling party, and say they will continue to mount air raids with a homegrown force of light aircraft smuggled in pieces into the country.
The Colombo Stock Exchange has fallen around five percent in the past fortnight in the wake of rebel air attacks on military and fuel installations, and the United States has warned Sri Lanka’s $23 billion (11.6 billion pound) economy is increasingly at risk from the conflict.