31 Killed in Sri Lankan Fighting
NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ Separatist Tamil Tiger rebels said today they beat back a Sri Lankan government offensive on northern town, a battle that killed at least 11 soldiers and 20 rebels.
Newspaper reports said government troops killed 81 guerrillas in the fighting Sunday.
In a statement, the rebel group said it recovered the bodies of 11 soldiers from the town of Mankulam and a nearby village 160 miles north of the capital, Colombo.
A military spokesman said rebels fired mortars at troops manning defenses near the village, but said there were no casualties.
No independent reports of the battle were available, since the area is sealed off to journalists.
Mankulam is the largest town along a 48-mile road the army has been trying to capture since May 1997 in the longest, bloodiest offensive of Sri Lanka’s 15-year-old civil war.
So far, government troops have captured about two-thirds of the highway, with 17 miles remaining. The road links Jaffna, a former rebel stronghold captured by the army two years ago, with the rest of the country.
Since the army takeover, Jaffna’s half-million people have had to rely on air and sea deliveries for food and other supplies.
The rebels, who are fighting for a separate homeland in the north and east, accuse the Sinhalese majority of oppressing the Tamil minority. The war has claimed 52,000 lives since it began in 1983.