Sri Lankan troops moved toward Tamil Tiger territory in the northeast yesterday, trying to seize villages near a frontline army camp and moving toward a rebel stronghold seen as a key government objective.
A month of the worst fighting since a 2002 truce has killed hundreds, but so far the front lines have barely moved. Now the government says it wants the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) out of the Sampur area overlooking the strategic harbor at Trincomalee, 230km northeast of Colombo.
"We have commenced a small operation to seize the area around Selvanagar, towards Sampur, around our army camp," an army spokesman said. "We don't have any intention of clearing up to Sampur. We have cleared some areas where LTTE were holding the ground."
The Tigers have said they will not allow Sampur to fall and will retaliate. The two sides also remain locked in fighting on the northern Jaffna Peninsula.
Two soldiers were killed and 12 wounded during a fierce battle with suspected rebels in the Trincomalee area yesterday, the military said.
The soldiers were on patrol in Selvanagar and Thoppur villages when the insurgents fired artillery and mortars, military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said.
The soldiers called for support, and the army returned fire from nearby bases, he said.
"There are some casualties, two killed and 12 injured," he said.
He did not comment on rebel casualties.
Fighting around the same area on Sunday wounded five soldiers.
The government maintains that operations to retake the village are not a violation of the 2002 ceasefire.
"What are we supposed to do, keep allowing them to attack our naval base?" Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said yesterday.
Samarasinghe said troops were trying to clear the area of rebels so that tens of thousands of mostly Muslim civilians displaced by recent fighting could return home.
Sri Lanka's 1.3 million Muslims are the nation's second-largest ethnic minority after the Tamils.
They have largely kept out of the more than two-decade conflict between ethnic Tamil rebels and the Sinhalese-dominated state, but because they speak Tamil they are often accused by the Tigers of being government informers.
"We are still committed to the peace process," Rambukwella said. "We have always said that we want peace, not war."
Hundreds of combatants and civilians have been killed in the last few months of fighting, and 204,000 people have been displaced by near-daily airstrikes and shelling.
Much of the fighting has been centered around Trincomalee and the Jaffna Peninsula, which the Tamils consider to be their cultural heartland.
The peninsula is controlled by the government, but the Tigers made a major push to retake it on Aug. 11.
An 11-day battle resulted in the deaths of about 650 security forces and insurgents, according to the military.
The peninsula remains in effective isolation, with its 500,000 residents subjected to 20-hour curfews.