Sri Lankan troops repulsed fierce overnight attacks by Tamil Tiger rebels in the country's northeast, the military said yesterday, as Norway prepared to mediate the crisis in hopes of staving off a return to full-scale civil war.
A Defense Ministry statement said government forces had repulsed repeated attacks, and inflicted "heavy casualties, killing over 40 Tiger cadres and wounding 70 other terrorists."
The statement referred to fighting around the strategic port of Trincomalee and the neighboring small town of Muttur.
"They attacked three of our camps. Still, fighting is going on. But we are 100 percent stable," the army's Director of Operation, Brigadier Athula Jayawardena, said speaking by telephone from the military's headquarters in Colombo.
The ministry acknowledged five of its soldiers had been killed in the battle.
The rebels, however, disputed the military's version of events.
A pro-rebel Web site said fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had overrun four Sri Lankan army camps and had entered Muttur overnight.
Muttur, like many northeastern towns is under government control, but the rebels operate from adjoining villages and jungle areas.
The latest round of fighting -- some of the fiercest since a 2002 cease-fire deal was signed -- was sparked by a rebel move to shut down a reservoir and cut off water to government-held villages. The military responded with airstrikes and a ground assault.
Norwegian envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer, who is scheduled to arrive from Oslo today, will meet with Sri Lankan government leaders and travel to the rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi over the weekend in an effort to settle the dispute, embassy spokesman Tom Knappskog said yesterday.
"Mr Hanssen-Bauer is not bringing a miracle solution, we don't have a miracle solution. It is up to the parties to find a solution, we can only help," Knappskog said.
The rebels accuse the government of reneging on a promise to build a water tower to supply rebel territories and forcing their blockade of the reservoir.
A Tamil Tiger representative could not be reached directly for comment, but the Web site TamilNet, which the rebel group often uses to issue statements, said the Tigers began an artillery barrage of army and police posts early on Wednesday morning and had "overrun four key locations in Trincomalee district."
With the bulk of the region closed to outsiders, there was no way to independently confirm either account.
Despite days of bloody combat, the government insisted again on Wednesday that it is committed to the country's four-year-old cease-fire, which a Tamil Tiger rebel commander has described as over.
The rebels took up arms in 1983 to fight for a homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamils, who had faced decades of discrimination from the country's 14 million Sinhalese.
The civil war killed about 65,000 people before the 2002 cease-fire.
But in recent months the truce has nearly collapsed, and renewed fighting has killed more than 850 people -- half of them civilians -- since December, cease-fire monitors say.