COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankan troops killed 30 rebels in a fierce jungle battle in the restive east and three insurgents killed themselves with cyanide capsules, the military said, as Japan’s peace envoy voiced concern at rights abuses.
The military said one soldier had been killed and 17 injured in the battle in an area of eastern jungle called Thoppigala, where the two sides have fought artillery and mortar bomb duels for weeks amid a new chapter in a two-decade civil war.
The Tigers said they had no immediate details of any casualties from the latest fighting.
“We estimate troops killed 30 Tigers, plus three Tigers committed suicide in front of our troops,” a spokesman for the Media Centre for National Security said, asking not to be named in line with policy. He said troops had overrun four Tiger bases.
“I think this might be the last battle in Thoppigala,” he added, referring to a military campaign to stamp the rebels out in the east, where the insurgents were evicted from a former stronghold in January.
Japanese peace envoy Yasushi Akashi said on Saturday he was worried by human rights violations blamed on both the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil Tigers, as police returned hundreds of deported Tamils to the capital in a U-turn.
However, unlike Britain and the United States which have both suspended some aid citing rights abuse concerns, Akashi said Japan — Sri Lanka’s chief financial donor — would continue with its multi-million-dollar aid programmes.
During his five-day stay in Sri Lanka police banished hundreds of Tamils to the war-torn north citing security concerns, nine mutilated corpses were found north of Colombo and the Tigers and military fought deadly battles, but the Japanese envoy remained optimistic.
“In the domain of human rights, much still remains to be done. There are obviously deficiencies and shortcomings,” Akashi told a news conference, listing “that unfortunate action of eviction of Tamil residents from lodges in Colombo and many other acts of disappearances, abductions, extrajudicial killings...”
“They are too numerous and they are unacceptable for a civilised country like Sri Lanka,” he added. “I very much hope these problems will be energetically addressed by all concerned.”
Rights groups have reported hundreds of abductions and disappearances blamed on both sides. President Mahinda Rajapaksa argues many of those reports are fake and designed to discredit his government and denies the security forces are involved.
“My meeting with the president of the country as well as other leaders has convinced me that the commitment for peace is still there,” Akashi said. “I am going back with a certain amount of hope and optimism as to the future of this country.”
Hours before Akashi spoke, dozens of minority ethnic Tamils forcibly ejected from the capital by armed officers on Thursday were transported back to Colombo after the Supreme Court issued an order blocking any further evictions.
Police had justified the deportation as a security measure following attacks blamed on the rebels in and around the capital in recent months, saying it was also an effort to eject any potential Tiger infiltrators from Colombo. Government ministers argued the evictions were voluntary.
Following the court order and amid widespread international condemnation of the move, Rajapaksa’s office issued a statement saying he had launched an inquiry into the police operation and would discipline anyone found guilty of wrongdoing.
Akashi said he hoped a cross-party initiative to come up with a consensus devolution proposal to end the conflict would eventually bear fruit.
However the Tigers have already dismissed the proposals of Rajapaksa’s ruling party, which offer the Tigers less autonomy than they already have. Analysts see no winner on the horizon in a war that has killed nearly 70,000 people since 1983 and displaced more than 500,000.