S Lanka says certain air space vulnerable from rebels

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COLOMBO, Oct 26 (Reuters) Certain areas of Sri Lankan air space are vulnerable, an official said today, four days after Tamil Tiger rebels mounted their biggest-ever operation against a government airbase.

Air Force Commander Roshan Goonetileke told journalists on Friday it will take some time to establish an air defence system for Sri Lanka and, until that happens, certain areas are vulnerable to attacks by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

''Certain areas are vulnerable and certain areas are not vulnerable. From whatever (systems) we have, we have protected certain places. But we can't protect the whole of Sri Lanka until we get (what) we want,'' said Goonetileke, adding that vital areas are now protected.

Monday's rebel assault on an air force base in the northern district of Anuradhapura killed 14 service personnel and damaged several aircraft. The military said 21 rebels also died during the operation.

''Our attack capability has not been reduced in any way, but we are hoping to replace the aircraft we lost in double-quick time,'' Goonetileke said.

The military said six soldiers were killed today in a landmine blast in the northern district of Vavuniya.

Troops were handling a landmine when it exploded, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. The mine was believed to have been planted by Tiger rebels.

The military also said troops killed eight Tamil Tiger rebels in three different confrontations in Vavuniya on Thursday and killed another rebel today in far northern district of Jaffna.

The Tigers were not immediately available for 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.

The fighting in the north, where a new chapter of a two-decade civil war is now focused after troops drove the Tigers from their bastions in the east of the island, comes after the military said dozens of Tigers were killed in heavy clashes in the north last week.

An estimated 5,000 people have been killed since early last year in the renewed fighting, 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 SS RK1748

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