COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — One of the bloodiest battles in Sri Lanka's 13-year-old civil war raged by land, sea and air Saturday as Tamil rebels lay siege to a key coastal military base, the Defense Ministry said.
The rebels say they have destroyed the Mullaittivu base, killing 800 government soldiers and losing 120 of their own men since Thursday, according to a statement issued by their London office.
The Sri Lankan military said soldiers were still defending the base 170 miles north of the capital, Colombo. Maj. Tilak Dunuwille, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said 211 soldiers and sailors and 425 rebels have been killed.
But other military officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the number of soldiers killed was far higher. The base had 1,200 personnel.
It was impossible to reconcile the rival claims. The government bars reporters from the turbulent north, and there was little communication from the camp.
Mullaittivu, on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka, serves as a lookout post to monitor rebel assault boats and ships.
The fighting--the most intense since Tamils lost their northern Jaffna stronghold in December--has involved fighter planes, gunboats, helicopters and infantry fighting around the coastal base and in the nearby sea.
More than 42,000 people have been killed since 1983, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam launched their war for an independent homeland. They accuse the Sinhalese majority of discrimination in education and jobs.