November 20, 2008 / 9:25 AM / 10 years ago

At least 60 killed in Sri Lanka battle, military says

COLOMBO, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Sri Lankan troops killed at least 50 Tamil Tiger rebels in a four-day battle for a bottleneck on the Jaffna Peninsula where both sides have been in a standoff for years, the military said on Thursday.

Ten soldiers were killed and 30 wounded in the battle for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) forward defence line at Muhumalai, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.

“Intercepted Tiger communications says about 50 terrorists were killed in the past four days,” Nanayakkara said.

The rebels had no immediate comment and no independent confirmation was available because the military bars most journalists from the war zone.

The 8 km (5 mile) stretch the army said it captured spans the narrow thread of land linking the army-held northern Jaffna Peninsula to the rest of the Indian Ocean island nation.

Earlier battles there have had high casualties rates because of the heavy concentration of artillery and land mines and close quarters the land engenders.

More than 200 soldiers and rebels died in fighting there in April, four months after the government scrapped an ill-observed 2002 ceasefire and vowed to wipe the Tigers out.

PINCER MOVEMENT

Two army divisions are fighting at Muhumalai to clear the way to move tanks and other armoured weapons south toward the rebels’ self-declared capital of Kilinochchi, and join up with other units battling from the west and south.

The capture of Kilinochchi would be a significant strategic advance that and would also give a political boost to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has overseen the most significant battlefield advances against the Tigers in 25 years of war.

Some of his close allies and analysts say its fall would be the trigger for him to call early elections to consolidate power, especially with the economy under strain due to the cost of the war, expensive debt and falling export prices.

The military on Saturday announced it had recaptured the entire western coast for the first time since 1993, shutting off weapons smuggling and attack operations.

The Tigers are on U.S., E.U. and Indian terrorism lists, and say they are fighting for a separate state for Sri Lankan Tamils, a goal of the war which started in 1983 and is now one of Asia’s longest insurgencies.

Many Tamils say successive governments led by the Sinhalese ethnic majority have discriminated against them since independence from Britain in 1948. (Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by David Fox)

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