Sri Lankan warplanes bombed Tamil Tiger positions as fighting broke out again near a disputed waterway in the troubled northeast yesterday, leaving more than 50 people dead, according to the rebels.
The battles, which included mortar and artillery attacks, ended a one-day lull in violence that followed the reopening on Tuesday by the rebels of the Maavilaru dam's sluice gates near the small town of Kantalai in Trincomalee district.
The rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had blocked the canal on July 20, sparking fierce clashes in which 440 people were killed.
Peace broker Norway arranged an end to the water dispute and Wednesday's lull was seen as raising prospects of saving a tattered truce. But the latest bloodshed dimmed those hopes, a diplomat close to the process said.
"We thought the water issue was resolved," the diplomat said. "Today's fighting makes Norway's job more difficult."
The LTTE said troops launched a "full-scale offensive" with aircraft, artillery and mortar bombs supporting a ground advance by about a "thousand" soldiers.
"We are in control of the sluice gates and the security forces want to capture it," LTTE spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiriyan said from his base in the northern rebel-held town of Kilinochchi.
He said at least 50 civilians had been killed and another 200 wounded in air attacks on rebel-held parts of the Trincomalee district where the sluice gates are located.
He said the military had suffered heavy casualties in rebel counter-attacks and put the guerrilla losses at three killed and seven wounded.
The casualty figures could not be independently confirmed due to the remoteness of the area.
Military officials in Colombo said at least five soldiers were killed and about 45 wounded in yesterday's clashes.
The defense ministry in Colombo disputed Tiger claims that they were controlling the bitterly-disputed sluice gates and said the military had launched a counter-offensive when the guerrillas moved to retake the dam area.
"Tiger terrorists ... commenced firing long range artillery and mortars from 4am today in an effort to re-capture the Maavilaru anicut [sluice gate] held by security forces," the ministry said in a statement.
It said troops were "compelled to retaliate."
The wounded soldiers were being taken to the main hospital in Kantalai where doctors set up a makeshift emergency room. Two seriously hurt soldiers were airlifted to the capital, an official said.
"We expect more casualties to come in today," said Kantalai hospital superintendent DGM Costa.
Doctors said troops were also being airlifted to the main hospital in the adjoining district of Polonnaruwa as the hospital at Kantalai was getting overcrowded.
Some 30,000 people who fled their homes last week because of fighting between troops and the Tigers in the coastal Muslim town of Muttur are also sheltering in Kantalai, aid officials said.
Some have been there for longer as they ran out of water when the Tigers closed the Maavilaru sluice gates on July 20. Six days later, the military sent planes to bomb the Tigers and began a ground offensive on July 31.
However, the guerrillas said they opened the sluice gates on Tuesday, releasing water to some 15,000 farming families downstream after a request from peace broker Norway.
The military said they themselves opened the gates but the Tigers said that the soldiers had opened separate gates further downstream.