Sri Lankan troops yesterday prepared a new assault to wrest a key reservoir from Tamil rebels who have cut off water to 60,000 villagers, sparking some of the fiercest fighting since a 2002 ceasefire deal.
The latest attempt to break the 12-day rebel blockade of the facility's canal gate follows an intense gunbattle near the northeastern city of Trincomalee, as well as fighting and attacks elsewhere on Monday that killed at least 63 people, the military said.
"Today we will continue with our operation until we can release water for the villagers," military spokesman, Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said yesterday.
The Tamil Tiger rebels surrounded the reservoir -- which supplies the villages with drinking and irrigation water -- on July 20, accusing the government of reneging on a promise to build a water tower for people living in rebel-held areas.
The island-nation's northeast is divided into government and rebel-held areas. The sluice gate is in a guerrilla-controlled territory but supplies water to government-held areas.
Heavy fighting between troops and rebels at the reservoir and in other fighting in the northern Jaffna peninsula killed at least 46 combatants, while a roadside bomb killed another 15 soldiers and two civilians near to Trincomalee, Samarasinghe said.
The death toll from the bomb was put at 18 on Monday, but subsequently lowered by the military.
The pro-rebel Web site TamilNet disputed the military's claim of casualties at the battle for the reservoir, saying only three of its fighters were killed there. TamilNet said 12 government soldiers were killed.
There was no independent confirmation of the toll.
In recent months the ceasefire has nearly collapsed, and renewed fighting has killed about 800 people -- half civilians -- since December, according to Nordic ceasefire monitoring mission.
"In reality, there is no cease-fire agreement in this area in Trincomalee today, but the paper is still valid," Ulf Henricsson, a retired Swedish general in charge of the monitoring mission said.
"A full-scale war will be a disaster for both sides," he added.
After the rebel's seizure of the reservoir, 220km north of Colombo, Sri Lanka's military responded with four days of airstrikes on rebel bases in the area before deploying ground forces on Sunday.