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World - Asia/Pacific

Rebels launch heavy assault on Sri Lankan army

October 7, 1998
Web posted at: 5:01 a.m. EDT (0901 GMT)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (CNN) - Heavy fighting broke out between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka's north when the military attempted to advance ahead of a key town that it captured last week, military officials said on Wednesday.

They said the troops came under heavy rebel mortar fire north of Mankulam on Tuesday and several soldiers were killed or wounded in the fighting.

The defense ministry said in a statement that ground troops had confirmed 18 rebels were killed and 12 wounded, while three soldiers sustained minor wounds.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels said over their clandestine Voice of Tiger radio that fighting had continued for several hours and they had lost 14 guerrillas in the battle.

The broadcast was monitored in the northern government-held town of Vavuniya.

A win and a loss for army

Government troops captured Mankulam last week soon after they lost another northern town to the rebels. Mankulam is said to be a strategic point on a key northern highway the military has been trying to capture since last year.

Savage fighting was reported in the north last week after the rebels attacked the military's defenses in Kilinochchi, forcing troops to vacate the town.

Kilinochchi lies south of the northern Jaffna peninsula.

Military spokesman Brigadier Sunil Tennakoon said last week 520 rebels and 443 soldiers were killed in the battle for Kilinochchi.

The loss of Kilinochchi was "the largest blow after Mullaitivu," said Tennakoon, in a reference to a military camp overrun by rebels in 1996.

Tamil rebels killed or captured some 1,200 soldiers in taking Mullaitivu, which is now a major rebel stronghold.

Strategic link needed for victory

Analysts say the capture of Mankulam is not as important as the loss of Kilinochchi.

The highway, if captured, would give the government land access to the peninsula. Currently all supplies of men and material for Jaffna have to be transported by sea or air.

The government slapped censorship on war reporting by the local and foreign media in June and independent confirmation of events is not possible as journalists are not allowed access to the war zone, except when taken on a tour.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a separate homeland in Sri Lanka's north and east since 1983, accusing the Sinhalese majority of oppressing the Tamil minority.

The government says thousands of people have died in the 15-year-old war.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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