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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Sri Lanka rebels break through northern defences

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka, Aug 12 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels broke through military defences in the island's far north and overran army bunkers on Saturday, truce monitors said, as the fiercest fighting since a 2002 truce spread.

The Tigers and army exchanged intense artillery fire and government jets bombed near the rebels' forward defence lines in the northern Jaffna peninsula, residents said, as thousands of civilians fled to churches.

The military said 27 of its personnel were killed and 80 injured, and estimated it killed more than 150 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels. It said it sank five Sea Tiger boats as they attacked army posts on the shore in Jaffna.

"The LTTE is definitely pushing the country to war," Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told a news conference.

Analysts said they suspected the Tigers were trying to divert pressure from their fighters battling in the east and disrupt military supply lines to the north.

The unarmed Nordic Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) said the Tigers had overrun five bunkers inside the army forward defence lines, and had landed troops on an island west of Jaffna and engaged the navy.

Around 40,000 troops are stationed in Jaffna, which is cut off from the rest of the island by rebel territory.

"What we are seeing now I am interpreting as an attempt to cut off the line of the security forces in Jaffna," said chief truce monitor Major-General Ulf Henricsson.

"The ceasefire agreement is definitely not on just now in these areas. There is no respect at all, they just don't care about it -- both parties."

As civilians from coastal villages sought refuge, foreigners headed to a UN compound after being warned to leave immediately.


In the east of the island, the Tigers rained artillery on the strategic port of Trincomalee, a vital maritime army supply line to Jaffna, before dawn. The military said there was some damage, but gave no details.

A Reuters witness in Jaffna, where the army has declared an indefinite curfew to keep people in their homes, heard fierce artillery fire to the east. Electricity was cut off for hours.

Sri Lanka's Tamils consider Jaffna their cultural homeland, and analysts say the Tigers are intent on recapturing it.

Some distraught residents dread being displaced yet again.

"We cannot go on like this forever," said Richard, a retired Tamil merchant seaman, who declined to give his full name. "I incurred heavy financial losses when I was displaced in 1995, and it took me some time to rebuild my house."

"It is better to hand over Jaffna to the LTTE. Only then will this stop. Until then, this war will go on."


The military accused the Tigers of provoking the northern confrontation and the government has said it will not halt operations until it controls a disputed waterway in the east and an irrigation reservoir that feeds it. This was the issue that sparked the fighting 18 days ago.

The Tigers insist the land is theirs and say continued army attacks are effectively a declaration of war. Monitors said nearly 300 majority Sinhalese civilians in government areas had been given assault rifles near the sluice area.

North of the town of Batticaloa towards a sluice gate on the waterway, the Red Cross say thousands of Tamils are displaced behind rebel lines having spent days under shellfire. Around 50,000 people are in camps in government territory.

The Tigers have long demanded a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka but President Mahinda Rajapakse has ruled this out. The rebels say any return to stalled peace talks is a distant prospect. (Additional reporting by Simon Gardner and Ranga Sirilal in COLOMBO and Peter Apps in BATTICALOA)
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