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Death Toll at 341 in Battle for Key Sri Lanka Town

August 23, 1997| From Associated Press

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Government troops claimed Friday to have captured nearly half a strategic town held by Tamil rebels in the fourth day of heavy fighting that has claimed more than 340 lives in northern Sri Lanka.

Sixty rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and 16 soldiers were killed Thursday, and 100 guerrillas and 31 government troops were wounded, military spokesman Maj. Kumar Dewage said. Other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 46 soldiers had been killed. There was no comment from the rebels on casualties.

At least 341 people have been killed on both sides since Tuesday, when the battle began for Puliyankulam--strategically located between the capital, Colombo, and the government-held Jaffna peninsula.

Soldiers captured the town's unused railway station Thursday, Dewage said. The rail link through northern Sri Lanka had been destroyed long ago by guerrillas, who used the tracks to build defenses.

Independent accounts of fighting are not possible because the government does not allow reporters into the area.

Government troops seized the Jaffna peninsula--which forms the northernmost tip of the island nation--from the Tamil rebels last year in a bloody battle that left 2,500 people dead. But the only land route to Jaffna remained in rebel hands. The military in May sent 20,000 soldiers to carve out a land route to Jaffna. The offensive has killed about 2,000.

The rebels want to establish a Tamil homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. They say Tamils, who account for 18% of Sri Lanka's 17 million people, are discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese, who control the government.

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