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At least 41 die as Sri Lanka bears down on rebel bases

COLOMBO, Sept 4 (Reuters) - Fierce combat across Sri Lanka’s north killed at least 41 people when separatist Tamil Tiger insurgents fought back against an unceasing army push into their strongholds, the military said on Wednesday. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels told the pro-rebel web site that they had killed 12 soldiers and seized a large weapons cache in fighting this week, among the heaviest this year.

At several locations, the military said it had killed 28 rebels and wounded 10 on Wednesday against the loss of one soldier and eight injured.

“The LTTE continue to steadily lose manpower as the Sri Lankan security forces advance further toward the heart of (its) administrative power, Kilinochchi,” military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.

The army two weeks ago said it was within artillery distance of Kilinochchi and has since thrust forward on four fronts to try and take a town it considers a strategic and symbolic prize. It has steadily captured rebel strongpoints over the last two weeks. The LTTE could not be reached for comment. TamilNet, quoting unnamed LTTE sources, said they had killed 12 soldiers and wounded 31 in several confrontations since Tuesday.

“SLA troops withdrew to their positions, unable to stand the onslaught of the LTTE,” after 11 hours of fighting at Pallamodai, TamilNet quoted an unnamed local rebel commander as saying.

The shifting front starts at Nachikudah on the northwest coast of the Indian Ocean island nation, curving down through heavy jungles before reaching the eastern shore about 15 km (9 miles) south of the Tiger-held port of Mullaitivu.

The Defence Ministry also confirmed that seven soldiers who went missing at Nachikudah on Tuesday were among 19 corpses the LTTE delivered to them via the Red Cross on Wednesday.

Casualty numbers are difficult to verify since the military bars media from the war zone and both sides distort them to their advantage in what has been a long-running propaganda duel.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong-based satellite TV provider Asia Satellite Telecommunications Company Limited said it had stopped broadcasting the Tamil Cultural Programme channel after agreeing to it with the channel’s owner, whom she declined to name.

“It had been reported that the channel’s content was related to LTTE, and you understand LTTE has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by a number of countries,” spokeswoman Winnie Pang said.

The Sri Lankan government in a statement said it had complained to AsiaSat that the channel was broadcasting “LTTE propaganda programmes in the Tamil language”.

In January, the government threw out a truce both sides had largely ignored and vowed to defeat the foe it has fought since 1983 by the end of the year.

The Tigers are on U.S., Indian and European terrorism lists, and have fought one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies over what it says is marginalisation of the minority Tamil people by the Sinhalese majority.

The Sinhalese are three-quarters of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people, and have led every government since independence from Britain in 1948. (Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal in Colombo and John Ruwitch in Hong Kong; Editing by Bill Tarrant))