Sri Lankan troops yesterday beat back a fresh attempt by Tamil Tigers to overrun the main defenses of the northern peninsula of Jaffna and killed at least 50 guerrillas, the defense ministry said.
The battle came a day after Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse said the door remained open for peace talks with the Tigers, but stressed that troops would take defensive action if necessary.
The rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched a seaborne attack on army bunkers at Kilali on the southwestern edge of the peninsula but were beaten back by dawn, spokesman Upali Rajapakse said.
"We have successfully repulsed the attack," Rajapakse said. "We have seen at least 50 bodies of Tigers ahead of our defense line after the battle that lasted several hours."
He did not give casualties for soldiers, but military sources said at least six soldiers were killed and 60 wounded in the intense close-quarter battle.
The guerrillas landed at Kilali after travelling by boat across the Jaffna lagoon, officials said.
There was no immediate reaction from the guerrillas to the military's claims, but the pro-rebel Tamilnet.com Web site said heavy overnight fighting was reported in the peninsula.
The fresh attacks ended a brief lull in fighting in the peninsula where the Tigers launched an attempt to overrun military positions last Friday.
However, the defense ministry on Wednesday said it had pushed back the guerrillas and aborted their plans to retake Jaffna, which they ruled as a de facto separate state from 1990 to 1995.
The military has said 150 soldiers were killed and over 300 wounded in earlier skirmishes in Jaffna. It put rebel casualties at 250 killed and more than 300 wounded. However, the rebels said their losses in the first two days totalled only 22 dead.
President Rajapakse told newspaper editors on Wednesday the government was ready for talks with the rebels.
"The door is always open," he said. "There is no war on. What we have done is to take defensive action when we have been attacked. If there is a war, we should be on the offensive."
Palitha Kohona, a senior adviser to Rajapakse and head of the peace coordinating agency, reiterated yesterday the government was prepared to sit down with the rebels.
He said the Tigers made overtures through the Swedish-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) last Friday, although he did not give details.
"We are ready to negotiate any time, any place," Kohona said. "What we are doing is just resisting LTTE attacks in areas which have been under government control pursuant to the ceasefire agreement of 2002."
The SLMM has said that the February 2002 ceasefire however "exists only on paper."
Security forces remained on alert elsewhere on the island, three days after a Pakistani diplomat escaped a bomb attack in Colombo.
Schools were closed while government and military installations were closely being watched. There had been fears the Tigers could stage retaliatory attacks after an air raid on Monday which the rebels said killed 61 schoolchildren in a rebel-controlled area in the north.