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Friday, July 14, 2006

Sri Lanka clash kills 12 soldiers, 4 rebels-monitors

COLOMBO, July 14 (Reuters) - At least 12 Sri Lankan soldiers and four Tamil Tiger rebels were killed in a firefight in the island's restive east on Friday, truce monitors said, in one of the worst military clashes since a 2002 ceasefire.

Nordic monitors and Red Cross officials said they had seen the corpses, while the military said a 13th soldier was still missing and four others were injured.

The Tigers insisted they had shot dead 22 people in the firefight, and said the balance likely belonged to a breakaway faction of former comrades led by renegade commander Karuna, whom they accuse the military of helping to mount attacks.

Kayal Viliyan, a senior rebel in the Tigers' eastern political office in the district of Batticaloa, told Reuters that around 60 troops had entered Tiger territory and been surrounded by about 200 rebels.

"We have found 22 bodies, and we are still searching," he said by telephone from Batticaloa. "They came into our area and we retaliated ... We have captured one soldier."

"The government does not want to admit the number of Karuna people killed in the attack," he added.

It was not immediately clear why the Tigers did not show the Red Cross evidence of any dead Karuna fighters killed in the clash in Batticaloa, where the dividing line between government- and rebel-held areas is often porous and ill-defined.

"Our patrol was fired upon with heavy weapons and mortars, close to an army camp. Additional troops were rushed to the area, and when they arrived, the Tigers surrounded them," said a military spokesman, Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe.

"The 22 figure is wrong. Until we recover the bodies we have 13 missing in action."


The Red Cross is due to coordinate the handover of the bodies of the slain soldiers on Saturday.

The incident came as Sri Lanka's navy rained mortar shells on Tamil rebel positions in the neighbouring northern district of Trincomalee in a separate incident after suspected snipers killed one sailor and injured one.

On Thursday, suspected Tiger rebels shot dead three soldiers and a political rival in northern Sri Lanka. The ambushes and military clashes have killed more than 700 people so far this year and strained the 2002 truce to breaking point.

Sri Lanka's tortuous peace process is deadlocked and teetering on the verge of collapse. Government and rebels are sharply divided over the Tigers' demands for a separate homeland for minority Tamils in the north and east.

Diplomats and analysts fear escalating violence could push the island back into a full-fledged war that would punish the $23 billion economy and the tourist industry.

However, in a rare exchange of goodwill, the Tigers said on Friday they would release a policeman they have detained since September 2005, when he entered their territory without permission to track down a suspected foreign paedophile.

Two fellow policemen were earlier released, one in a prisoner swap. The release of the third, due on Saturday, comes after President Mahinda Rajapakse allowed Tiger media coordinator Daya Master to be rushed to Colombo for treatment for a heart condition.

However, many in the Sinhalese-majority south have little compassion for the Tigers after two decades of civil war that have killed more than 65,000 on both sides.

"Why is the government protecting killers?" asked 32-year-old Roshan Chaminda, secretary of the National Movement Against Terrorism, as dozens protested outside the top-end Apollo hospital. "He is a terrorist organisation leader. They kill Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and anyone else against them," he said.
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