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Sri Lanka fighting leaves scores dead

April 24, 2008|From the Associated Press

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — Tamil rebels and Sri Lankan troops waged one of their fiercest battles in years Wednesday, battering each other with gunfire and mortar shells that killed 100 guerrillas and left 76 soldiers dead or missing, the military said.

The rebels' numbers were different but still high: more than 100 soldiers and 16 rebels killed in 10 hours of fighting.

Each side routinely inflates casualty figures for the other side and underreports its own. Independent accounts of the fighting are unavailable because journalists are barred from the war zone.

The military said fighting broke out before dawn when rebels overran government positions in the Muhamalai region of the Jaffna peninsula, north of rebel-held territory.

Government troops fought back with guns, mortars and tanks, eventually driving off the attackers and launching a counteroffensive that pushed 500 yards into rebel territory, said the military spokesman, Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara.

Soon after the ground fighting, air force jets and helicopters destroyed two artillery positions and hit rebel bunkers in the area, the military said.

Nanayakkara said 38 government soldiers died and 84 were wounded. The toll was the worst the military has acknowledged since the government pulled out of a tattered cease-fire with the rebels in January.

Rasiah Ilanthirayan, a spokesman for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, accused the military of sparking the battle: "They attempted to get near our positions. That's when the clashes erupted."

In a later statement e-mailed to reporters, Ilanthirayan said the guerrillas fought back, forcing the troops to withdraw to earlier positions.

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