COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ The Sri Lankan air force bombed camps of Tamil Tiger rebels on a strategic causeway today as soldiers dug trenches in an attempt to stop the guerrillas from recapturing their former capital, Jaffna.

Air force planes successfully hit rebel targets, although it was not possible to know the extent of damage or casualties, a senior military official said.

Also today, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross 126 bodies said to be government soldiers killed in weekend battles over the strategic Elephant Pass, a base on the highway linking the Jaffna peninsula to the mainland.

Government troops retreated from the Elephant Pass area during the weekend after the rebel onslaught. The army set up a new defense line Monday to protect Jaffna. Trenches were being dug along the new positions.

``We established contacts with the LTTE, and we have accepted 126 bodies,'' ICRC spokesman Harsha Gunawardene said.

Gunawardene declined to say if any more bodies were expected. Officials close to the rebels said the guerrillas had the bodies of 74 more soldiers.

The Defense Ministry said earlier 88 soldiers had been killed. The guerrillas said they killed 1,000.

Since November, the guerrillas have been trying to retake their former stronghold of Jaffna, which fell to the army in December 1995. Over the last six months, fierce fighting has raged in the area.

Opposition leader and former prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, said today the the rebels' victory now has given them free hand to decide when and how to attack Jaffna.

``It is a major military setback for the government. And now the threat to Jaffna is real,'' Wickremesinghe told reporters.

Wickremesinghe said he has been informed by various sources that the rebels have taken at least 300 prisoners of war. There was no immediate comment from the defense ministry.

Army chief Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya told a news conference Monday that the soldiers withdrew from the Elephant Pass to ensure a better defense of Jaffna.

The new defense line is being set up 12 miles southeast of Jaffna, to prevent the rebels from advancing further north and bringing the airport into their artillery range.

Some 40,000 soldiers are in Jaffna, a city of 500,000 people. The military relies on the single airport for its operations.

Jaffna was the rebel base for most of the 17 years that the guerrillas have been fighting Sri Lankan forces to carve out a homeland for the nation's minority Tamils. The war has left 62,000 people dead.


On the Net: Rebel Web site,

Sri Lankan government Web site,