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Sea clash 'kills 40 Tamil rebels'

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  • Clash between Tamil Tiger rebels and Sri Lanka Navy convoy
  • Navy claims 40 rebel fatalities, Tigers say just 4 dead
  • Attack comes despite call for Christmas cease-fire
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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (CNN) -- Tamil Tiger rebels, ignoring a call for a Christmas truce, attacked a Sri Lanka Navy convoy off the island's northern coast Wednesday, but claims of damage and casualties vary widely depending on the source.

The Sri Lankan Navy claimed killing 40 rebels, but rebel sources said just four of their seamen died.

The government also denied a rebel claim that the Sea Tigers -- the naval arm of the Tamil rebels -- sank one of its Fast Attack Craft and damaged two others during the four-hour sea battle off the island of Delft, outside the northern Jaffna peninsula.

Independent verification of damage and casualty claims is difficult since the government banned news media from battle areas.

Two French television journalists were arrested by police on December 24 for allegedly filming a military checkpoint while following a Tamil family visiting a detention center near the southern town of Galle.

Christian clergy had made a plea to both sides to observe a truce during the Christmas holidays.

A truce reached in 2002 and monitored by Scandinavian observers, has also been ignored in the past year as fighting between Sri Lankan forces and Tamil Tiger rebels escalated.

The rebels, formally called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority in the north and east, citing decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.

About 65,000 people died before the 2002 cease-fire.

The U.S. State Department designated the Tamil Tigers a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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