Government forces killed eight separatist Tamil Tiger rebels during a gunbattle in northern Sri Lanka, officials said yesterday, as air strikes and exchanges of artillery continued to threaten the country's fragile ceasefire.
The rebels attacked naval ground forces who were searching late on Tuesday for hidden weapons caches and ammunition in the northern port of Jaffna, a few kilometers from where soldiers and insurgents have clashed in recent days, a Defense Ministry official said.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said five rebels were killed in the ensuing gunbattle, but that no soldiers or sailors were slain.
Separately yesterday, an elite police unit killed three rebels who had attacked a police patrol in eastern Sri Lanka, military spokesman Major Upali Rajapakse said.
The air strikes were concentrated in northern territories controlled by the Tigers, whose forces battled soldiers with artillery on the Jaffna Peninsula, the Tamil heartland.
"On and off, [the rebels] are firing artillery into government-controlled areas and we have successfully repulsed those attacks," Rajapakse said.
He said fighter jets bombed insurgent positions in an effort to aid the ground troops on the peninsula, which is controlled by the government but surrounded by rebel territory. He refused to say if there were any casualties.
Schools around Sri Lanka, meanwhile, remained empty after the government ordered them shut, fearing they could be targeted by the Tigers.
In Jaffna, daily 22-hour curfews have kept the city's 500,000 residents locked in their homes. With the city largely cut off, prices were rising fast, there was only about an hour of electricity a day and mobile phones were barely working.
Meanwhile, officials said yesterday that two weeks of fighting in north and eastern Sri Lanka has left more than 125,000 people displaced, prompting an immediate need for relief assistance.
Fighting in Jaffna since last Friday has forced at least 10,000 people to seek shelter in churches and temples, reported the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), a front organization of the rebels.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has ordered food and other supplies to be delivered to the peninsula after the closure of a key highway to the area resulted in mass shortages, according to a spokesman for the Ministry of Nation Building and Development.
Civilians within rebel controlled areas have also left their homes due to air and artillery strikes by security forces, but their numbers are not known in Colombo.
The TRO said that it was assisting 50,000 minority Tamils displaced in rebel controlled areas in the northeastern and eastern parts of the country.
In the government controlled areas of Trincomalee district 65,000 people, mostly from the majority Sinhala community and minority Muslims are in need of aid after being displaced by the conflict over control of a vital sluice gate in the district.
The Norwegian government has provided 150 million rupees (US$150,000) for immediate humanitarian relief operations in Trincomalee.