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Friday, August 18, 2006

Fighting escalates in northern Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Tamil Tiger rebels launched fresh attacks on key targets in northern Sri Lanka, where a week of fierce fighting has killed more than 800 rebels and security forces, the military said Thursday.

The clashes in northern Jaffna Peninsula came as Sri Lanka's president vowed the government would not bow to insurgent demands and withdraw from the north, which is claimed by the rebels as the heartland of ethnic Tamil culture.

The United States and the European Union separately called for an end to hostilities.

"We believe that the continuation of the fighting will only make the prospects for peace worse and will benefit neither side," U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Mann said.

The European Union said in a statement that it is "deeply concerned about the growing humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka and the suffering of innocent people."

Twenty boats from the Tigers' feared sea unit attacked a strategic land and naval base in northern Kilaly, off the west coast of Jaffna, prompting a gunbattle that lasted until dawn Thursday, military spokesman Maj. Upali Rajapakse said.

Rajapakse said the navy sunk three rebel boats and killed 70 rebels, who also attacked by land. He said about 15 soldiers and sailors were killed.

The fighting in Jaffna Peninsula, about 186 miles north of Colombo, has been some of the heaviest since the two sides signed a cease-fire in 2002.

Although the peninsula is controlled by the government, it is cut off from the rest of the mainland by rebel territory and is considered an integral part of an independent Tamil homeland, for which the Tigers have been fighting for more than 20 years.

Since Aug. 11, the insurgents have stepped up efforts to retake the peninsula in fighting that has killed at least 700 rebels and 106 government troops, Rajapakse said.

He said between another 500 to 600 rebels and about 170 government forces have been wounded.

Tiger officials could not immediately be reached to confirm the report, but each side routinely disputes the accounts — and death tolls — offered by the other. It is virtually impossible to verify their claims with the area largely closed off by the violence.

Also in Jaffna, insurgents fired a barrage of rockets and artillery at a government air base, according to the pro-rebel TamilNet Web site. It said the Tigers may have hit a military helicopter that was about to take off. The military denied the aircraft was damaged.

Government forces fired on rebel-held areas in Muttur, a town near the eastern port of Trincomalee, close to where fighting broke out in late July over a rebel blockade of a water supply, the Web site reported.

The two sides have traded artillery and mortar fire for weeks in the area, from which tens of thousands of civilians have fled.

Norway brokered the supposed cease-fire between the rebels and government, which is dominated by representatives of Sri Lanka's 14 million predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese. The country's 3.2 million Tamils are largely Hindu.

Thorfinnur Omarsson, a spokesman for the truce monitors, said they had moved out of Trincomalee because shells had fallen too close to the team's housing. He said they would continue to monitor the conflict from a town about 25 miles away, until it was safe to return.

"We are supposed to monitor a cease-fire, not a war," Omarsson said.

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