Fierce fighting between security forces and Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka's volatile north and east has killed at least 95 people over the last few days, the military said yesterday.
The military launched a major assault on Sunday to retake a Tiger-held enclave in the east in which at least 79 people have been killed, according to the military and the rebels.
Military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said another 16 Tiger rebels were killed yesterday morning when they fired on an army check point in northern Vavuniya district. The soldiers returned fire, killing the 16. He did not say if any soldiers were killed or wounded in the attack.
Also yesterday, air force jets bombed a rebel naval base in Tiger-controlled Mullaithivu district, in the northeast. No casualty figures were available.
Both sides routinely inflate the other's death tolls, and independent confirmation is virtually impossible as conflict zones are restricted to outsiders.
The push to retake Sampur, in northeast Trincomalee district, opens a new front in the more than two-decade conflict between ethnic Tamil rebels and the Sinhalese-dominated government, which was temporarily halted by a 2002 ceasefire.
Samarasinghe said the military and Tigers traded artillery overnight, and that the goal of the operation was to loosen the rebels' hold on the area south of Trincomalee naval base and specifically to destroy their fire power.
"Our aim is to neutralize [rebel] artillery and heavy mortar bases. Yesterday we destroyed a minimum of three artillery bases," Samarasinghe said yesterday.
"These bases are a very big threat. The [rebels] have been firing at the naval base and also at civilians in the area," he said.
An officer at the National Media Center for Defense said troops are advancing slowly toward Sampur and that heavy fighting was ongoing.
Thirteen soldiers and 66 insurgents have been killed since Sunday, the military said, although the rebels claim 20 civilians were among those killed in airstrikes and shelling Monday.
Samarasinghe denied there were any civilian casualties.