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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Sri Lankan army overruns Tiger posts, at least 15 die

COLOMBO, Sept 9 (Reuters) - The Sri Lanka army said it had mounted a fresh attack on Tamil Tiger rebels in the north of the island on Saturday and overrun several bunkers but lost 11 men and had 53 wounded.

At least four rebels were killed in the fighting.

At the same time, the government said there was no question of withdrawing from a key rebel stronghold it captured five days ago in the northeast of the country, despite Tiger threats of retaliation and even a return to full-scale war.

The army says the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) provoked the latest clashes by using mortars to shell its frontline positions in the Muhamalai area of the northern Jaffna peninsula on Friday.

Artillery and air strikes were used against the rebels before ground troops moved in, said army spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe.

"We have neutralised LTTE mortar locations which they were using against our forward defence lines," he said, describing it as a defensive operation.

"Our troops suffered 11 killed and 53 injured," Samarasinghe said, adding many rebels had also died. Earlier, the Voice of the Tigers radio station had reported four rebels had been killed.

On Friday, the Tigers had threatened to strike back if the army does not immediately withdraw from territory near the strategic Trincomalee harbour in the northeast of the Indian Ocean island nation.

Senior rebel leader S. Puleedevan told Reuters the seizure of Sampur, the first major capture of territory by either side since a 2002 ceasefire, was "tantamount to a declaration of war".

The rebels' political chief, S.P. Thamilselvan, said it had brought an end to the ceasefire agreement.

But the government says it was forced to take Sampur because the rebels had been using it to shell a naval base in Trincomalee and disrupt a maritime supply route to the besieged, army-held Jaffna peninsula in the north.

"In the light of this the question of withdrawal will never arise," defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told Reuters. "We have to accept this challenge from Puleedevan."

The rebel enclave at Sampur was also threatening an important oil storage terminal, a flour mill and a cement factory, he said.


Diplomats say it is difficult to see a way to rescue the peace process and warn that a "quagmire" may have developed with both sides apparently more interested in fighting than talking.

It was unlikely, they add, the rebels will return to the negotiating table unless they somehow regain control of Sampur.

But Rambukwella said the Tigers were using any excuse to dodge peace talks.

"We have to get to issues, discuss serious matters, how power should be shared, devolved," Rambukwella said. "We are ready for that, the international community is ready for that, the LTTE is in absentia.

"We feel they are dodging talks on purpose because peace is not a word they are familiar with," he added.

Meanwhile, the government said it had evacuated 795 civilians by ship from the Jaffna peninsula on Saturday and was taking them to Trincomalee, in the largest evacuation from the government enclave since the latest fighting began.

The Tigers have refused to give the boat a guarantee of safe passage. The foes blame each other for trying to force a full-scale return to a war that has killed more than 65,000 people since 1983.

Hundreds of civilians, troops and Tiger fighters have been killed in the past month, and more than 200,000 people have fled to refugee camps across the island's rural northeast.
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