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Sri Lanka says 18 rebels killed in sea battle

[AFP, Saturday, 4 April 2009 09:58 No Comment]

Sri Lankan security forces destroyed three Tamil Tiger boats on Saturday and killed at least 18 guerrillas trying to escape a major military ground offensive, defence officials said.

 

Tiger rebels are battling to resist an military assault that has pushed them into a 20-square-kilometre (eight-square-mile) patch of land in the northeast coastal district of Mullaittivu.

 

The navy’s special boat squadron sank one vessel belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) while two others were destroyed by ground troops when they tried to beach, a military spokesman said.

The military believed that at least 11 rebels were killed by the navy while another seven perished when the army directed ground fire at Tiger boats that were trying to get to shore, he said.

 

The defence ministry said two sailors were wounded and three naval craft slightly damaged during the confrontation.

 

The guerrillas were believed to be leaving a narrow strip of land that is still under their control when the battle erupted.

 

Sri Lankan troops captured a key village from the Tigers on Friday after heavy fighting that left at least 44 guerrillas dead while another 13 rebels were killed elsewhere, the military said.

 

The United Nations and foreign aid organisations say as many as 150,000 civilians may be trapped in the combat zone, although the Sri Lankan government insists the figure is less than half that.

 

A top UN official, Walter Kalin, was visiting camps for war displaced people in the north of the island on Saturday, officials said.

 

Kalin, the UN secretary general’s representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons, spoke with people in the government-held town of Vavuniya who had fled the fighting.

 

His visit came as UN chief Ban Ki-moon again urged Tamil rebel leaders to allow trapped civilians to move freely out of the conflict area in northern Sri Lanka.

 

"The secretary general calls upon the LTTE leadership to allow civilians to leave the conflict area of their own free will," said a statement issued by UN spokeswoman Michele Montas in New York.

 

"The severe restrictions of the LTTE on their freedom of movement violate international law."

 

Ban also reminded the Colombo government "of its responsibility to protect civilians, and to avoid the use of heavy weapons in areas where there are civilians, as promised."

 

He said the Sri Lankan government "should receive and treat displaced persons in accordance with international law, and work closely with the United Nations in meeting the protection and physical needs of displaced persons."

 

At the height of their power in the mid-1990s, the Tigers controlled more than a third of the total land mass of Sri Lanka as they pushed for an independent Tamil homeland.

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