90 killed in fierce battle in Sri Lanka

/ Source: The Associated Press

Tamil rebels and government troops waged a fierce battle in northern Sri Lanka on Wednesday, killing 52 guerrillas and 38 soldiers in one of the deadliest clashes this year between the two sides, the military said.

The battle broke out early in the day, when rebel forces overran the front lines in the Muhamalai area of the Jaffna peninsula, north of the de facto rebel state, said military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara.

Government forces fought back with small arms, mortars and tank fire, eventually repelling the rebel assault and capturing 500 yards of rebel-held territory, he said. Some 84 soldiers were wounded.

The casualties marked one of the highest death tolls for soldiers in the recent round of fighting, which began more than two years ago.

Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan accused the military of sparking the battle.

"They attempted to get near our positions. That's when the clashes erupted," he said, adding that he did not have casualty figures.

A rebel-linked Web site confirmed the military's death toll but did not divulge guerrilla losses. The site claimed the rebels beat off a major offensive and posted photographs of what it said were several dead soldiers lying inside their bunkers with weapons.

Soon after the ground clashes, air force jets and helicopters pounded rebel artillery positions, destroying two, and hit rebel bunkers in the area, the military said in a statement.

Both sides routinely inflate casualty figures for the other side and underreport their own losses. Independent accounts of the fighting are unavailable because the media are barred from the war zone.

Fighting between the two sides has escalated since the government pulled out of a long-ignored cease-fire deal with the rebels and forced out the Nordic truce monitors who were some of the only observers with access to the war zone.

Senior government officials have vowed to capture the rebels' de facto state in the north and crush them by the end of the year. But diplomats and other observers say the army is facing more resistance than it expected, and government officials have begun calling for Sri Lankans to have patience with the war effort.

The Tamil Tigers have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for Tamils, who have been marginalized for decades by successive governments controlled by majority Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.