Sri Lanka suffers worst violence since '02 pact

Published August 13, 2006

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Rebels mounted a fierce offensive Saturday in Sri Lanka's northern Jaffna Peninsula, the heart of the island's Tamil minority, military officials and the rebels said. It was the heaviest fighting since the two sides signed a 2002 cease-fire.

Thousands of civilians were reported trapped by the fighting, which was focused around the village of Muhamalai, a dividing line between territories controlled by the government and the Tamil rebels - and a strategic spot along the only highway into the core of the peninsula.

More than 200 rebels and 27 government soldiers died in Saturday's fighting, which continued as night fell, said a military spokesman, Brig. Athula Jayawardana. Eighty government soldiers were wounded, he said.

Rebel officials could not be reached for comment on their casualties, and the government's report could not be confirmed. The combat zone was sealed off to outsiders.

The government controls most of the peninsula, which is the traditional home of Sri Lanka's 3.2-million ethnic Tamils, who accuse the 14-million Sinhalese who dominate the island of discrimination.

Saturday's fighting began with the rebels launching attacks on navy camps in the town of Trincomalee and then striking at government forces in Muhamalai and elsewhere, Jayawardana said.

A pro-rebel Web site, TamilNet, said the insurgents captured an army checkpoint at Muhamalai, but a statement from the Defense Ministry said that soldiers had beaten them back.

Nadaraja Raviraj, an ethnic Tamil lawmaker, said civilians in parts of the peninsula were trapped by heavy fighting because of a government curfew and did not have electricity or phone service. "People are not allowed to move to save their lives. The Sri Lankan government, by imposing a curfew, has kept them as human shields."

There was no immediate comment from the government.

Also, a senior Sri Lankan official, Ketheesh Loganathan, was shot to death at his home outside Colombo, the capital. It was not immediately clear who was responsible, police said.