Sri Lanka military, rebels say clashes kill dozens

COLOMBO Sat Dec 29, 2007 11:40am EST

Sri Lanka's army soldiers stand guard as an officer of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission inspects the site of a claymore mine explosion suspected to have been caused by Tamil rebels in Vavuniya December 27, 2007. Sri Lanka's military said on Saturday troops captured rebel positions in the island's northwest killing 20 rebels, while rebels said they had killed 20 soldiers in the latest clashes in the civil war. REUTERS/Stringer

Sri Lanka's army soldiers stand guard as an officer of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission inspects the site of a claymore mine explosion suspected to have been caused by Tamil rebels in Vavuniya December 27, 2007. Sri Lanka's military said on Saturday troops captured rebel positions in the island's northwest killing 20 rebels, while rebels said they had killed 20 soldiers in the latest clashes in the civil war.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's military said on Saturday troops captured rebel positions in the island's northwest killing 20 rebels, while rebels said they had killed 20 soldiers in the latest clashes in the civil war.

The rebels said they had injured dozens of others soldiers and three of its fighters were killed, while the military said it has not sustained any fatalities.

The confrontation, in the northwestern district of Mannar, is the latest engagement in intensified fighting between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebel fighters.

"The troops advanced to the terrorist forward defense line in Mannar and captured about a one kilometer stretch, communications confirmed at least 20 terrorists were killed including two leaders," said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara.

He denied rebel claims and said no soldiers were killed in the fighting.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are seeking to carve out an independent state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, said in an emailed statement they had repelled a military attack in Mannar on Saturday.

"The Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) launched a three pronged offensive to dominate areas administered by the LTTE. The SLAF fighting units are already beaten back in two of the three fronts," said Tamil Tiger rebel military spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiraiyan.

"The shelling duel and fire fights still continue in those areas. The SLAF have lost at least 20 soldiers and over forty other SLAF soldiers have sustained injuries so far," Ilanthiraiyan said, adding three rebels were killed in the fighting.

There was no independent confirmation and military analysts say both sides exaggerate enemy losses and play down their own.

The violence came after the military said it sank 11 rebel boats in a clash off the island's northern tip on Wednesday killing around 40 insurgents, and after the air force bombed a suspected rebel base in the northeast on Thursday.

The military has vowed to wipe out the Tigers militarily, and is seeking to drive the rebels out of the northwestern district of Mannar after evicting them from vast swathes of jungle terrain they controlled in the east earlier this year.

More than 5,000 people have been killed in fighting between the military and Tigers since early 2006 alone, taking the death toll since the war erupted in 1983 to around 70,000.

Military analysts say there is no clear winner on the horizon, and fear the war could grind on for years.

(Reporting by Ranga Sirilal)

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