Sri Lankan army, rebels exchange heavy fire


Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 5

Sri Lanka's military pounded Tamil rebel territory in the north with air strikes and artillery after army bases came under heavy fire from the insurgents, an official said yesterday.

"The [rebels] began attacking us on Thursday. We have been retaliating since then," military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said.

Samarasinghe said the attacks continued through Friday night, but he did not immediately have details about yesterday morning.

Several soldiers suffered minor injuries in the exchange of fire near Kilali, close to the de facto border between government and rebel-held territory in the north, he said.

There was no immediate word from the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam about casualties.

Elsewhere in the country, two separate bomb blasts in the north and east killed two people and wounded 10, including four school girls, witnesses and the government said.

It wasn't immediately clear who was responsible for Friday's blasts, but suspicion quickly fell on Tamil rebels.

The rebels fought a 19-year war with the Sinhalese-dominated government before a 2002 ceasefire. Rebel officials were not immediately available for comment.

In northern Vavuniya, a bomb hidden with a dead body in a three-wheeled taxi exploded on Friday morning, wounding six people, witnesses and the government said.

Four ethnic Tamil schoolgirls, between the ages of 11 and 14, a policeman and a civilian were wounded, according to officials at the hospital in Vavuniya, where they were taken.

In a separate incident, a bomb exploded outside a shop in eastern Batticaloa killing a soldier and a passer-by and wounding three more civilians and another soldier, area police officer Maxi Proctor said.

The military blamed the Tamil Tigers for the blast.

The bombings occurred in Sri Lanka's Jaffna Peninsula, which has long been a flash point for violence in the country's nearly two-decade civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated state and the Tamil rebels, who consider Jaffna to be the heart of Tamil culture.

The Tigers lost control of the peninsula in 1995 but still hold vast swaths of territory in the north, just south of Jaffna.

The 19-year conflict cost the lives of about 65,000 people before a 2002 cease-fire.

That truce is now on the verge of collapse as months of escalating shootings and bomb blasts have turned into near-daily air strikes and mortar fire.

Meanwhile, a navy ship left the Jaffna Peninsula with 800 passengers who had been stranded there for nearly a month by the heavy fighting, navy spokesman D.K.P. Dassanayake said.

The main road connecting Jaffna to the rest of the country was closed, and air and sea transport came to a halt because of the fighting, causing inconvenience to thousands of people.