148 Killed in 5 Days of Sri Lanka Combat

The Associated Press
Monday, September 11, 2006; 4:41 PM

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels exchanged mortar and artillery fire across their northern front lines Monday, as the military said the death toll from five days of heavy fighting rose to 148.

As battles raged in the northern Jaffna peninsula, a human rights official said at least 50 ethnic Tamil youths and young adults are still missing after disappearing in the area last month.

Jaffna has long been a flash point for violence in Sri Lanka's 19-year war between the Sinhalese-dominated state and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who claim it as the cultural heart of the country's 3.2 million ethnic Tamil minority.

The Tigers have been fighting for a separate homeland for Tamils in the northeast, and Jaffna _ controlled by the army but predominantly Tamil _ would be its capital.

Although a 2002 cease-fire temporarily halted large-scale hostilities, weeks of escalating battles along borders separating rebel- and government-held territory in the northeast have left it in tatters.

Neither side, however, has formally withdrawn from the truce.

Government soldiers have advanced nearly a mile into rebel territory in Jaffna and captured the guerrillas' forward defense line at Muhamalai, an official at the Defense Ministry's Media Center for National Security said.

Rebels fired mortar and artillery shells at the troops as they sought Monday to consolidate their gains, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing agency rules.

Military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said the number of government troops killed in the area since Thursday rose by five overnight to 33. The fighting also wounded 132 soldiers, he said.

The Defense Ministry's Web site said at least 115 Tamil Tigers had been killed _ a claim the rebels denied.

Samarasinghe said the army had captured a forward bunker line used by the rebels to fire mortars at government troops.

But senior rebel official Seevarathnam Puleedevan denied that the Tigers' bunkers had been overrun and said they continued to resist government troops.

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