/ 9 March 2009

Sri Lankan soldiers kill 150 rebels as fighting surges

Sri Lankan soldiers killed at least 150 elite Tamil Tiger fighters carrying out waves of counter attacks, and the pace of refugees fleeing the tiny war zone picked up speed, the military said on Monday.

Heavy combat erupted over the weekend, suggesting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were mounting a desperate defence against a military onslaught that has confined them to 45 square kilometres in the Indian Ocean island’s northeast.

Since Saturday, the LTTE’s elite Charles Anthony Brigade and Radha Regiment have attempted to punch through the army’s frontline, the military said.

”Now they have not held back. Their elite fighters have been deployed to stop troops from entering those areas,” military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. ”Yesterday we recovered 50 bodies, and have recovered 150 in all.”

Nanayakkara said there are likely to be more discovered as soldiers finish clearing operations.

After 25 years of off-and-on civil war, Sri Lanka’s military is racing toward a final battle to crush the separatist group as a conventional force.

The only thing slowing its advance is tens of thousands of civilians, mostly being held by the LTTE at gunpoint and suffering in dire conditions packed into a narrow 12km-long coastal strip, aid agencies say.

In the same period, at least 676 civilians escaped the war zone, some on foot but the vast majority by boat, Nanayakkara said.

The Tigers could not be reached for comment. The pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com, quoting an unnamed source, reported the LTTE had launched an artillery attack on the weekend that killed a ”considerable number of soldiers”. Nanayakkara acknowledged some soldiers had been killed: ”We have suffered casualties, but we are not releasing the numbers.”

Both sides in the past have distorted battlefield figures to their advantage, and independent confirmation is difficult since the war zone is normally sealed off to outside observers. — Reuters