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Battle for Sri Lanka rebel HQ rages, at least 66 die

COLOMBO, Dec 22 (Reuters) - Heavy fighting erupted on Monday as soldiers seized defences around the separatist Tamil Tigers’ self-proclaimed capital, killing at least 66 combatants, the military said.

And as battles around the town of Kilinochchi intensified for a second week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa urged the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to free civilians trapped in the war zone by year’s end or else face listing as a terrorist group.

The military has been moving on Kilinochchi since September, but the past two weeks’ assault on the rebels’ heavy earthen defences or bunds encircling the town’s outskirts has seen both sides claiming increasingly higher death tolls.

“The army’s 57th Division and Task Force 1 today captured 2 Km (1 mile) in the bund and fighting in the area killed 56 LTTE terrorists and wounded 86,” a spokesman at the Media Centre for National Security said on customary condition of anonymity. Ten soldiers were killed and 40 were injured, he said.

The LTTE had no immediate comment.

It is nearly impossible to verify battlefield claims since both sides block independent media access to the war zone, and have repeatedly distorted figures to their advantage in the past.

On Monday, Rajapaksa threatened to formally ban the LTTE as a terrorist group, a week after Human Rights Watch said the Tigers were using thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields and forcing them into combat duty or battlefield labour.

“Release all innocent Tamils held in bondage and hostage by you as human shields by the dawn of 2009. If you fail to do so, you will face proscription and all other consequences,” the president’s office quoted Rajapaksa as saying.

Aid groups estimate there are about 230,000 people trapped in war zone where the military and rebels are locked in one of the most decisive phases so far in one of Asia’s oldest civil wars.

Analysts said the threat was hollow, since the LTTE is in effect already a banned organisation in Sri Lanka and is on U.S., E.U. and Indian lists of banned terrorist groups.

“There is a major military battle being fought and foreign governments being canvassed to ban it,” said Jehan Perera, an analyst with the non-partisan National Peace Council. “What greater hardship can government impose? It’s a symbolic move.”

The LTTE started fighting the government in 1983, saying it was battling for the rights of minority Tamils in the face of mistreatment by successive governments led by the Sinhalese majority since Sri Lanka won independence from Britain in 1948. (Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Valerie Lee)