27 Killed As Gov’t Troops Advance Toward Town ‘Waiting to Die’
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Government troops hunting for Tamil rebels crept forward Sunday from two sides towards war-ravaged Batticaloa, and residents said the city was ″waiting to die.″
A Defense Ministry statement said 16 soldiers and 11 separatists were killed in fighting that has already left more than 1,400 combatants and an unknown number of civilians dead.
Residents of Batticaloa, on the eastern coast, said they feared reprisals by government troops, who are mostly Sinhalese, because the rebels burned police stations and Sinhalese shops before fleeing into the jungles.
″We are like a drum, beaten on both sides. First the Tigers threatened and killed many of us, and now government soldiers are coming. We can only pray,″ said a hotel owner on condition of anonymity.
The city has been without electricity and transport since the fighting began.
Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the troops were approaching Batticaloa from Chenkaladi in the north and Kalmunai in the south, and were expected to reach the town early Monday.
The troops are mainly Sinhalese, who make up about 75 percent of Sri Lanka’s 16 million people. Tamil rebels say the Sinhalese discriminate in hiring and education against mainly Hindu Tamils, who make up 18 percent of the population.
Batticaloa, 135 miles northeast of Colombo, was the first flashpoint of the fighting that erupted two weeks ago, ending a 13-month cease-fire between the government and the militants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
According to the Defense Ministry statement, nine soldiers died Saturday when Tamil rebels blew up a motorized military patrol near Weli Oya village in the north. Another seven soldiers and 11 rebels died when government troops attempted, but failed, to reach the besieged Kankesanthurai naval base on Jaffna peninsula.
On Saturday, troops destroyed five rebel bunkers and cleared land mines as they moved towards Batticaloa, the military officials said.
A Tamil reporter in the city described Batticaloa’s 200,000 people - 85 percent Tamil and the rest Moslem - as ″populating a city waiting to die.″
″Batticaloa has a whole lot of scars, a burnt Buddhist temple and a police station, and the gutted remains of eight Sinhalese shops. The Sinhalese soldiers are going to be pretty mad when they get here,″ said the reporter, speaking on the condition he was not identified further.
On Saturday, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, the architect of the cease- fire forged in May 1989 with the rebels, said he still hoped for a negotiated settlement.
Several Tamil militant groups had been fighting for a separate homeland in the northeast since 1983, but most gave up their weapons after a 1987 peace accord. The Tamil Tigers, after a brief acceptance, reneged on the pact and began attacking Indian soldiers.
More than 11,000 people have been killed in the seven-year revolt.