COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Government troops launched a huge offensive Tuesday to recapture a Tamil rebel stronghold in northern Sri Lanka, deploying planes and tanks in the attack.
At least 22 rebels, 18 soldiers and one civilian were killed, and 89 soldiers were wounded in the first 11 hours of fighting, military spokesman Brig. Sanath Karunaratne said.
"We have recovered 22 bodies of terrorists, and there will be more," Karunaratne said. "There are some other bodies of terrorists scattered in the area," he said, adding that several civilians were wounded.
Accusing the government of taking advantage of a unilateral cease-fire that the rebels had declared on Christmas Eve, the guerrillas from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam warned the military of an "all-out offensive" unless it calls off the current attack.
But the government pressed its offensive to retake Elephant Pass, whose loss last year was seen as the army's worst defeat in the 17-year separatist war.
The Elephant Pass causeway connects the Tamil-majority north with the Sinhalese-dominated south and gives the rebels an overland corridor for supplies that they receive by sea.
By Tuesday noon, government troops were 13 miles from the pass, Karunaratne said.
"The battle is still raging, and we are advancing," he said.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 to create a Tamil homeland in the north and east, accusing the majority Sinhalese of discrimination.