Rebels Down Warplane in Counterattack Against Sri Lanka Military
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Tamil separatists struck back at advancing Sri Lankan troops Friday by downing a warplane, possibly with a missile, ransacking two military camps and killing at least 45 soldiers.
Officials said at least 600 rebels attacked troops near Alavetti and Sandilippaai, two towns the military had captured since its largest offensive in eight years began Sunday.
Relying on darkness, the rebels overran the two camps near the towns and stole most of their weapons, military sources said on condition of anonymity.
At least 45 soldiers were killed and 100 wounded, the sources said. Rebel casualties appeared to be high, but no numbers were available. Before the rebel counteroffensive, at least 30 soldiers and 11 rebels had been killed since Sunday.
The rebels claim the renewed fighting has forced nearly half of the 800,000 Tamils living in Jaffna Peninsula to flee their homes.
``They were moving on tractors, bullock carts and bicycles. People had nothing in their hands. They were just trying to escape the fighting,″ said the Rev. Annappa Jeyakumar, a priest who fled Jaffna town four days ago and reached the capital, Colombo.
The civilians have moved to refugee centers, churches, temples and schools to escape the fighting, he said.
Jeyakumar said the shelling began Sunday after the military dropped pamphlets warning the local population to take shelter in refugee centers. ``Sometimes you could count a shell every minute,″ he said in an interview.
The priest said a shell damaged a hospital at Manippai, just north of Jaffna town. He said he saw at least 20 bodies being unloaded on the veranda of Jaffna Hospital, but he did not know how many people were killed.
The influx of refugees has become so large that some relief camps have put up signs saying they cannot take in any more people, he added.
Relief agencies say at least 150 people, mostly Tamil civilians, have been killed, including more than 65 when a plane bombed a church and adjoining school near Jaffna town where civilians were taking shelter.
On Friday, the guerrillas shot down an air force warplane, possibly with a surface-to-air missile, as it strafed and bombed rebel positions, killing the pilot, the military said.
If it was a missile, it would only be the third time the Tigers have used them against the air force.
For 12 years, the rebels have been fighting for a homeland in Sri Lanka, saying its majority Sinhalese deny the minority Tamils jobs and college admission and routinely use other discriminatory actions.
After coming to power on a peace platform in August, President Chandrika Kumaratunga reached a cease-fire with the rebels and began negotiations with them. But the rebels broke the truce April 19 and stepped up the fighting.