August 28, 2006

Rebels say Sri Lanka air raids kill 20 civilians

By Peter Apps

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers said at least
20 civilians were killed and 26 wounded in air force raids on
Monday in the island's east, as the army launched a new push
into Tiger territory.

The military said it had raided identified rebel targets
south of the strategic port of Trincomalee 145 miles northeast
of the capital, Colombo. It said 8 soldiers were killed and 28
wounded during fighting to take rebel-held villages.

"They are continually shelling and bombing populated areas
in our control. They have advanced and reached our lines,"
Tiger military spokesman Rafiah Ilanthiraiyan told Reuters by
telephone from the rebel headquarters in the town of
Kilinochchi. "There are 20 civilians dead and 26 wounded."

There was no independent confirmation of the death toll.

Hundreds have been killed in violence this month, the worst
fighting since a 2002 truce, but so far the front lines have
barely moved. But the government says it wants the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) out of the Sampur area overlooking
Trincomalee harbor.

"We are retaliating. Obviously they are trying to come into
Sampur. They are trying to initiate a full-scale war. We have
always been ready to defend our land and our people,"
Ilanthiraiyan said.

More than 65,000 people have died in two decades of civil
war, well over 1,000 in the last year.

Most of the fighting has been in the island's north and
east, where the minority Tamils mostly live, but there have
also been bomb blasts and assassinations in Colombo.

The Tigers have used the Sampur area -- which includes the
southern edge of Trincomalee harbor entrance -- to shell the
naval base and launch attacks on military supply convoys to
Jaffna, on the northern tip of the island.

The government says it can no longer accept that.

The Tigers say they will not give up Sampur, and warned
they would retaliate with all their might if the government
tried to seize it. Diplomats say the government demand that the
rebels leave Sampur makes a return to peace talks even more

So far, the worst fighting has been in Jaffna, seen as a
key Tiger goal in their fight for a separate Tamil homeland.


Around 500,000 Jaffna residents are trapped by sporadic
exchanges of artillery across front lines that cut off the
peninsula from the rest of the island. Supply is only possible
by air and sea.

A Reuters witness saw troops unload munitions from a
Russian-built troop transport plane at the Palali airbase in
Jaffna, loading five white body bags containing corpses and 10
wounded soldiers to be flown back to Colombo.

Troops nearby were building new underground concrete
bunkers at the base, which has also come under rebel artillery
fire. Aircraft skim the surface of the sea as they fly in and
out to avoid Tiger fire.

Some soldiers in the east say they are sick and tired of a
guerrilla war they say neither side can win, but one commanding
officer flying home on leave said morale was high in the north.

"Compared with earlier parts of the war, this time our
soldiers are facing the Tigers well," said battalion commander
Major Kamal Pinnawala. "Most of our soldiers believe this time
they will be able to repulse all the LTTE attacks."

Officials were worried that a consignment of 1,500 tonnes
of emergency aid shipped north last week would soon run out.

"These food items will only last one week," said Government
Agent K. Ganesh. "We are not sure when the next ship will be

Staples like vegetables have fallen in price, as farmers
have been unable to transport them to government-held areas in
the south for sale. But prices of goods in short supply have

"I don't know how they will divide the stocks," said
housewife Mary Maridas, whose carpenter husband has been out of
work since the Jaffna siege began. "We are living on 1- pounds
of bread a day and lentils. This is very unfortunate."

(With reporting by Simon Gardner in COLOMBO and Anuruddha
Lokuhapuarachchi aboard a Sri Lankan Air Force Antonov)