Sri Lanka clashes raise death toll


November 23, 2006

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) -- The Sri Lankan military said Friday it killed at least 19 insurgents in a fierce battle with Tamil Tiger rebels in the restive east, where many fear escalating violence will lead the country back to full-scale war.

The Sri Lankan military sent tanks and warplanes into eastern Batticaloa district on Thursday after the rebels attacked government troops, the defense department said on its Web site Friday. Fifteen rebels were killed in artillery and air strikes, while another four rebels died, and about 25 were wounded, in a separate encounter with security forces in the district, the military said.

The separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, however, said only one of their fighters died, and claimed to have killed seven government commandoes. They also accused the government of launching an offensive to seize control of their territory in Batticaloa.

There was no way to reconcile the conflicting claims.

Batticaloa has been home to a breakaway faction of the mainstream rebels since a powerful eastern commander split in 2004 with 6,000 fighters. The uprising was suppressed by the northern-based rebels, though the renegades enjoy influence, and alleged military backing, in the area.

Maj. Upali Rajapakse, a military spokesman, said the rebels "launched a classic, conventional attack on our troops" at dawn Thursday in Batticaloa district. He said the military responded and called in tanks and air support to bomb the rebels' long-range gun positions.

The rebels said they killed seven government commandos in the fighting, though Rajapakse said only seven soldiers had been wounded. However, he said seven security personnel were killed in separate incidents, away from the main battle field, that he blamed on the rebels.

The Tigers have been fighting for over two decades for a separate homeland for the country's ethnic Tamil minority, citing discrimination by the Sinhalese majority.

A 2002 cease-fire temporarily took the steam out of the bloody civil war, but since last December, air strikes, mine attacks, assassinations and heavy arms fire have killed more than 3,200 fighters and civilians.