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At least 159 killed in Sri Lanka as rebels battle military thrust

August 20, 1997

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Tamil separatists fired ground-to-air missiles at two air force jets in fierce fighting that killed more than 150 combatants, a military spokesman said Wednesday.

Two Sri Lankan pilots flying Israeli-made Kfir jets destroyed the missiles and landed safely during the fighting Tuesday, the military said.

Although the rebels were known to have such weapons, believed to be U.S.-made Stingers, they have used them sparingly, military spokesman Maj. Kumara Dewage said.

At least 20 soldiers and 130 rebels were killed in Tuesday’s fighting near Puliyankulam, a heavily fortified rebel town about 135 miles north of the capital Colombo, Dewage said.

But the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam disputed that death toll in a statement faxed to news agencies Tuesday from their London headquarters, saying they lost only seven fighters.

The rebels claimed they had destroyed two of the government’s tanks, heavily damaged two others and captured an armored troop carrier.

Dewage denied those claims, saying only that three battle tanks were slightly damaged. He said soldiers destroyed two rebel buses bringing reinforcements.

``Air force warplanes bombed fleeing rebels Tuesday, inflicting heavy casualties among them,″ Dewage said, adding that fighting continued in the area Wednesday.

Independent confirmation is not possible because journalists are barred from the war zone.

The Sri Lankan air force has lost 12 planes over rebel territory in the last two years, at least three to missiles, the military said. Air force officers say the rebels may have bought the missiles from Afghan guerrillas.

An estimated 20,000 government troops have been trying since May to capture a rebel-held strategic highway in northern Sri Lanka that would provide a land access to Jaffna Peninsula, now reachable only by air or sea. Casualties have been high.

Soldiers wrested the peninsula from the rebels in May 1996 in a bloody battle that cost 2,500 lives on both sides, but the only highway to Jaffna remains in rebel hands. Since the start of the offensive, troops have captured about a quarter of the 45-mile highway.

The rebels are fighting for the creation of a Tamil homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

The rebels say Tamils, who account for 18 percent of Sri Lanka’s 18 million people, are discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese. More than 50,000 people have been killed since the war began in 1983.

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