updated 12/5/2007 7:29:25 PM ET 2007-12-06T00:29:25

A land mine explosion blamed on Tamil separatists tore through a passenger bus crowded with civilians in northern Sri Lanka on Wednesday night, killing at least 15 people and wounding 23 others, the military said.

The bus blast came exactly a week after two bombings blamed on the Tamil Tigers killed 20 people in a suburb of the capital, Colombo. Those attacks followed a renewed military offensive against the rebels in their home base in the north. The military says the offensive has killed hundreds of guerrilla fighters in recent weeks.

The bus had been heading north from the agricultural town of Kabithigollewa near rebel-held territory when it was hit by the blast from a claymore mine, said Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman.

Evening buses in the area are often crowded with farmers returning from a market in the town. At least 15 people were killed and 23 wounded, Nanayakkara said.

A military search operation for the attackers was under way, witnesses said. A string of ambulances ferried the wounded to the hospital in the nearby town of Anuradhapura.

A similar bus attack in the same area as Wednesday night’s blast killed 64 people last year and provoked wide-scale military retaliation against the rebels.

Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan could not immediately be reached for comment on the bus explosion. The military said it was certain the rebels — formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — were responsible.

“These kind of attacks normally would be carried out by the LTTE, and at the same time they are desperate because of the things happening in the north,” Nanayakkara said.

Fighting since 1983
The Tamil Tigers have fought since 1983 for an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka’s north and east following decades of discrimination under successive Sinhalese-dominated governments. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict. A 2002 cease-fire agreement fell apart over the past two years.

Senior military officials have called for a full-scale offensive in the north to force the rebels out of their de facto state in the area — and to destroy the separatist group after more than two decades of warfare.

In other violence, soldiers and rebels fought across Sri Lanka’s northern jungles in battles that killed 29 rebels and seven soldiers, the military said.

In two battles early in the day, separate groups of rebel fighters crossed the front lines and fought with troops near two villages just south of rebel-held territory, Nanayakkara said. The gunbattles killed 13 rebels, he said.

In another skirmish nearby, Tamil Tigers ambushed government soldiers guarding a crucial road and killed three of them, Nanayakkara said.

Hours later, a mine blast on the same road ripped apart a tractor carrying soldiers, killing four, he said.

Another group of troops crossed the front lines and killed 11 rebels, while yet another unit shot and killed five of the Tamil Tigers in no man’s land, he said.

Ilanthirayan, the rebel spokesman, has disputed the military’s figures in recent days. Each side routinely exaggerates the other’s casualty numbers and plays down its own, and an independent confirmation of the death tolls is unavailable due to restricted access to the conflict zone.

As battles between the two sides raged and authorities maintained a security alert in Colombo following rebel bombings, the military sent 600 troops to state hospitals to fill in for striking health workers, Nanayakkara said.

“This is a drain to the army,” he said. “This is a bad time for this to be happening.” He said most of those sent were support staff and not essential to the war effort, however.

Since Saturday, 153 rebels and 21 soldiers have been killed, according to military figures.

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