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Sri Lankan troops capture rebel-held village after fierce fighting

May 18, 1997

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Government soldiers killed at least 100 separatist guerrillas during their takeover of a rebel-held village in northern Sri Lanka over the weekend, the military said Sunday.

The battle Saturday for Nedunkerni, about 150 miles north of the capital, Colombo, was part of a major government offensive to capture a vital road link to northern Jaffna Peninsula.

The rebels, who seek a homeland for minority Tamils, have accused the military of targeting civilians in the offensive, which began Tuesday, and say the fighting has sent thousands of people fleeing into the jungle.

``Nedunkerni has become a ghost town after virtually all Tamil residents _ now homeless _ were bombed out of their houses by persistent air and ground attacks,″ a rebel statement said.

The battle for Nedunkerni left 22 soldiers dead and 26 wounded, the military said. Four rebel camps in the area were destroyed and several local rebel leaders were among the 100 killed, it said.

There was no immediate comment from the rebels on the casualty toll provided by the government, but they typically say the government’s estimates of rebel casualties are inflated.

Independent accounts of the fighting are not available because the government prevents journalists from traveling to the region.

Government troops are advancing from two directions in an effort to capture a 55-mile road through rebel-held territory to the town of Kilinochchi, 175 miles north of the capital.

Control of that road would allow them to transport food and building materials to rebuild the war-shattered Jaffna Peninsula, which can now be reached only by air or sea.

It is the government’s first major thrust into this portion of rebel-held territory since peace talks ended unsuccessfully in April 1995.

Tamils, who account for 18 percent of Sri Lanka’s 18 million people, claim discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese, who control the government and military. More than 48,000 people have died in the 13-year civil war.

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