Tamil rebels, military battle in eastern Sri Lanka

Tamil Tiger rebels, military battle for territory in eastern Sri Lanka The Sri Lankan military, backed by tanks and war planes, battled Tamil Tiger rebels for over three hours on Thursday for control of territory in the east, a military spokesman said. The rebels said they killed seven government commandoes. In two incidents elsewhere Thursday, the military said rebels killed seven Sri Lankan security men. In a third operation, the military said air force planes pounded a rebel naval camp in the north. Maj. Upali Rajapakse, a Sri Lankan military spokesman, said seven soldiers were wounded in the fight in eastern Batticaloa district. It was not immediately clear if the seven wounded were the same that the rebels listed as dead. He said rebel casualties were estimated in the "dozens," although rebels said just one of their fighters had been killed. "They (rebels) launched a classic, conventional attack on our troops at dawn today and we fought back and managed to force them to retreat," Rajapakse said, adding that the military used battle tanks and called in air support to bomb rebels' long-range gun positions. "We believe our attacks have inflicted heavy (rebel) casualties," Rajapakse said. The Tigers, however, accused the military of trying to seize control of their territory. "The military has started a big operation to capture territory, they have moved closer to our forward defense lines," the rebels' military spokesman, Rasiah Ilanthirayan, said from the insurgents' de facto capital of Kilinochchi. He said their fighters killed seven commandoes from the anti-terrorist Special Task Force after they crossed over to insurgent-held territory in the east. Ilanthirayan said they lost one rebel in the battle. There was no way to reconcile the conflicting versions and death toll. Rajapakse said the rebels had advanced on government-held areas in Batticaloa late Wednesday prompting the military to mobilize troops. Batticaloa has been home to a breakaway faction of the mainstream rebels since a powerful eastern commander split in 2004 with 6,000 fighters. The uprising was suppressed by the northern-based rebels, though the renegades enjoy influence, and alleged military backing, in the area _ a hotbed of recent violence. Air force planes bombed an identified Sea Tiger base in Mullaithivu district of northern Sri Lanka on Thursday, an official at the national security media center said. There were no reports on the casualties. Separately, rebels raided a security camp in northern Kabithigollewa before dawn Thursday, killing three government "home guards" _ pro-government civilian residents who have weapons training and help security forces,the media center said. Also Thursday, three policemen and a security guard, providing security for ethnic Sinhalese farmers working in their fields, were killed by suspected Tamil Tigers in eastern Ampara, the official said. The Tigers have been fighting for over two decades for a separate homeland for the country's ethnic Tamil minority, citing discrimination by the Sinhalese majority. A 2002 cease-fire temporarily took the steam out of the bloody civil war, but since last December, airstrikes, mine attacks, assassinations and heavy arms fire have killed more than 3,200 fighters and civilians. Both sides insist they have not withdrawn from the truce, but peace talks to try to salvage the accord held in Switzerland in October failed to bring about any progress. With peace talks stalled, the government and the rebels refuse to budge from their positions. The rebels want a separate homeland, while the government says regional autonomy is the maximum it will give.