By C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Sri Lankan soldiers and Tamil Tiger rebels fought heavy battles during an army push to corner the separatist insurgents on the Indian Ocean island’s northeast coast, the military said on Monday.
The fighting on Sunday took place at several locations around the shrinking wedge of jungle that is all the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) still control, with analysts saying the 25-year war is near its end.
"We have recovered five bodies and over 40 LTTE were killed according to rebel transmissions we intercepted," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. He did not mention military casualties.
After the battles, soldiers discovered the wreckage of an airplane and had called in the air force to determine if it was theirs or from the rebels’ tiny air wing. It was found near a sixth rebel airfield captured by the army, the military said.
In another sign of the infrastructure the Tigers had built in the area they wanted to create as a separate state for Sri Lankan Tamils, soldiers captured an underground fuel dump with more than 300 225-litre (50-gallon) drums, Nanayakkara said.
The LTTE could not be reached for comment, since most communications in the war zone have been severed. Verification is difficult since both sides bar independent media from the area.
The pro-rebel www.TamilNet.com website, quoting medical sources it did not identify, reported that 18 civilians had been killed in the last day in artillery shelling around Mullaittivu, the eastern port that is the Tigers’ last major stronghold.
Nanayakkara said the report was false. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has ordered the military to ensure no civilian deaths.
Rights groups last month accused the LTTE of holding civilians in the war zone to provide a pool of forced conscripts and labourers, which the rebels deny.
The United Nations last week appealed for the rebels to let them leave, and urged the military to keep refugees safe. Aid agencies say there are about 230,000 in a war zone the army says now measures just 30 km (18 miles) by 15 km (9 miles). The Tigers in the past have used reports of civilian casualties to bring about international pressure for a ceasefire.
India, which has intervened in the past after lobbying from Tamil politicians there, this weekend signalled it would not step in this time. India’s foreign secretary met Rajapaksa and donated more aid to civilians but did not discuss a truce.
New Delhi lists the LTTE as a terrorist group, as do the United States, the European Union and others.
The LTTE say they are fighting to address mistreatment of minority Tamils since the Sinhalese ethnic majority took over at independence from Britain in 1948. (Editing by Jeremy Laurence)