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Sri Lanka’s Military Blocks Assault

December 15, 1999

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Sri Lanka’s army commander said Wednesday his troops have blocked a massive assault by Tamil separatists on the gateway to their former capital, Jaffna.

Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Sunil Tennakoon said 480 rebels and 28 soldiers were killed since Saturday when the rebels first attacked Elephant Pass, the causeway linking the mainland to the Jaffna Peninsula.

He said more than 340 soldiers were wounded, but he did not know the number of wounded rebels.

``We are quite content with the present situation where we have been able to contain such a large number of rebel cadres,″ the army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle told reporters.

The guerrillas disputed the military claim, saying 38 of their fighters and more than 100 troops were killed. Independent confirmation was not possible as reporters are not allowed into the area.

In the last six weeks, the rebels have overrun more than 100 towns, villages and army garrisons in an offensive that has reversed the tide of the 16-year war.

Balagalle admitted the army had suffered setbacks.

``We can’t be encouraged by recent losses the army has suffered, yet we can’t have successes all the time,″ he said.

During the Elephant Pass attack, the rebels, known as the Tamil Tigers, used both ground fighters and their naval arm, the Tamil Sea Tigers.

``The combined forces of the army, navy and air force successfully repelled the attacks,″ said Tennakoon.

Jaffna, which served as the rebel capital, was wrested back by the government in 1996. The loss of the peninsula, 186 miles north of the capital Colombo, was a huge blow to the guerrillas.

More than 58,000 people from both sides have died in the war. The rebels want to carve out a homeland in the north and the east for the minority Tamils who, they say, are discriminated in jobs and education by the majority Sinhalese.