Sri Lanka says kills 17 rebels in northern clashes

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COLOMBO, Oct 20 (Reuters) Sri Lankan troops killed at least 17 Tamil Tiger rebels in clashes today, the military said, with the north of the island becoming the focus of a new chapter in a two decade civil war.

Troops fought two separate artillery battles with the rebels along a ''border'' that separates rebel from government territory in the northwestern district of Mannar and neighbouring northern district of Vavuniya.

In Mannar, troops fired artillery killing eight Tamil rebels ''and many were wounded,'' said a spokesman at the Media Centre for National Security, declining to be named.

He said in Vavuniya, the rebels ''fired artillery at us and we retaliated with the same. We confirmed another eight Tigers were killed. Four soldiers were wounded.'' A rebel was killed in another incident in the far northern Jaffna peninsula when a group of Tigers tried to infiltrate forward defence lines, he added.

The Tigers were not available for comment and there was no independent confirmation. Military analysts say both sides tend to exaggerate enemy losses and play down their own.

The north has become the focus of the fighting after troops drove the Tigers from bastions in the east of the island. The military said dozens of Tigers were killed in heavy clashes in the north earlier in the week.

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, analysts say there is no clear winner on the horizon and fear the conflict could rumble on for years.

Counter-terrorism experts say there is no military solution to Sri Lanka's protracted conflict, and say the only hope is for both sides to reach a long-elusive political settlement.

REUTERS AE KN2252

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