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Sri Lanka army offensive kills dozens, fighting rages

Written by: Staff
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COLOMBO, Sep 10 (Reuters) Sri Lanka's army today said 28 soldiers and dozens of Tamil Tigers had been killed in their advance across frontlines in the island's far north, as the rebels accused them of shattering what is left of a 2002 truce.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said fighting continued to rage in no-man's land today morning. They said six of their fighters had died since the offensive in the northern Jaffna peninsula began on Friday and 13 were wounded.

''We have destroyed the bunkers of the LTTE,'' said army spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe. ''It was a successful operation and at the moment we are consolidating the area.'' He said 28 soldiers had been killed and 119 injured, while the Defence Ministry said it believed at least 60 rebels had died.

Hundreds of civilians, troops and Tiger fighters have been killed since Sri Lanka's two-decade civil war re-erupted in late July, and more than 200,000 people have fled to refugee camps across the island's rural northeast.

The Tigers have threatened to retaliate with all their might if government offensives continue.

''The Sri Lankan government have declared war against the LTTE by doing offensive attacks,'' S Puleedevan, head of the Tigers' peace secretariat, told Reuters by satellite phone from the northern rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi.

''By their actions, they are killing the ceasefire agreement.'' He stopped short of declaring the paper truce to be dead, saying instead that he expected Sri Lanka's main donor nations to exert pressure on the government to halt its offensives at a meeting in Brussels due on Tuesday.

SLIDING TOWARDS WAR? The army blames the LTTE for starting the latest fighting by firing shells and rocket propelled grenades at their frontline positions in the Muhamalai area of the besieged Jaffna peninsula -- cut off from the rest of the island by rebel territory and where food is running desperately short for around 500,000 residents.

The military responded with artillery and air strikes before advancing around 600 metres across the heavily mined frontline on Friday to capture rebel bunkers.

''It's not about capturing land, it's only the neutralising of their frontline,'' said Samarasinghe, describing it as a defensive operation with a limited objective.

But one military source said the army wanted to push southeast towards the strategic Elephant Pass, some 20 km from the frontlines and on the southern end of the Jaffna peninsula, to try and drive the Tigers out of the peninsula itself.

Diplomats say it is difficult to see how to rescue the peace process with both sides apparently more interested in fighting than in talking.

Tempers have risen further since the army captured a rebel stronghold on Monday near the strategic Trincomalee harbour in the northeast of the island after days of artillery battles.

The rebels demand that the army vacate the area of Sampur, the first major capture of territory by either side since the ceasefire was signed.

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 Jaffna peninsula.

''In the light of this, the question of withdrawal will never arise,'' said defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella. ''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.

Separately, the army said three soldiers were also killed by a rebel mine near the northern town of Vavuniya today.

REUTERS SY BD1559

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