Sri Lanka says kills 20 rebels in heavy fighting

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COLOMBO, Oct 18 (Reuters) Sri Lankan troops killed at least 20 Tamil Tigers in heavy fighting near a ''border'' that separates government and rebel-held terrain in northern Sri Lanka overnight, the Defence Ministry said today.

In a separate incident at sea off the northwestern district of Mannar, three people were killed in a clash between the Navy and the rebels' naval wing, but it was not immediately clear whether the dead were insurgents or civilians, the military said.

''Army soldiers defending the Wanni defence lines ... continued their pre-emptive operations immediately ahead of their defence lines, killing at least 20 LTTE terrorists,'' the Defence Ministry said on its Web site, citing defence sources. It said two soldiers were wounded.

Troops fought a series of clashes east and west of the town of Omanthai, the main crossing point between government and rebel territory in the north, using heavy artillery guns, while the Tigers replied with mortars, the military said.

It said the clashes occurred on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) side of defence lines in the far north, where a renewed civil war is now focused as the government seeks to wrest control of the rebels' de facto state.

The Tigers had no immediate comment on the fighting and there were no independent accounts of what had happened or how many people were killed. Military analysts say both sides tend to exaggerate enemy losses and play down their own.

In a separate incident early today, the Navy said it intercepted three suspected Sea Tiger vessels off the town of Pesalai in the northwestern district of Mannar before dawn and became locked in a firefight.

''We don't know who (killed them) because we fired but also the LTTE fired. We don't whose bullets hit them. Both the LTTE and us use the same calibre and same Chinese weapons,'' said Navy spokesman Commander D K P Dassanayaka.

Four survivors aboard the boat included two children, who were admitted to Mannar hospital with blast injuries, hospital officials said.

Pro-rebel Web site www.tamilnet.com said those killed were refugees seeking to flee to neighbouring India. The Navy said the boat had been travelling in the opposite direction, towards the southeast.

An estimated 5,000 people have been killed since early last year amid near daily land and sea clashes, ambushes and air strikes, taking the death toll since the conflict erupted in 1983 to around 70,000.

While the government has had the upper hand in recent months, capturing swathes of rebel-held territory in the east, analysts say there is no clear winner on the horizon and fear the conflict could grind on for years.

REUTERS SKB PM1600

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