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Clashes Escalate at Sea, on Shore between Sri Lankan Military, Tamil Rebels

By Steve Herman
New Delhi
27 December 2007

The Sri Lankan military is continuing a campaign to further weaken Tamil rebels, attacking them at sea and on land in the latest clashes in the 25-year-old civil war. VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports New Delhi.

Sri Lanka's military on Thursday said that raids by MiG and Israeli-made Kfir jets completely destroyed a northern naval base of an elite sea squadron of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

This comes a day after a reported fierce battle at sea between the Sri Lankan Navy and the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Casualty figures cannot be independently confirmed, but the Sri Lankan defense ministry says 11 rebel ships were hit and 40 Tamil Tigers died. A rebel spokesman is quoted as saying only four of its men were killed, and says one navy vessel was destroyed in the battle.

The military acknowledges one of its ships was damaged when a pair of rebel suicide boats exploded near the vessel.

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara says the clashes are part of an ongoing campaign to force the Tigers to negotiate.

"This is not a special operation as such," he explained. "We wanted to impose maximum casualties and take them to the table where we can talk about peace."

Sri Lankan military officials on Thursday, meanwhile, said that a suspicious vessel flying an Indonesian flag has been forced to shore for a thorough inspection by the Navy.

The vessel, the MV Le Wing, was spotted two days previously nearly 170 kilometers off the eastern coast. The crew claimed their ship had run out of fuel on their way from Mumbai, India to Thailand and had been adrift for more than two weeks.

Military spokesman Brigadier Nanayakkara says officials are trying to determine if the ship, claiming to be transporting heavy machinery, was actually attempting to smuggle weapons or supplies to the Tamil Tigers.

"We are investigating on that," he said. "It was drifting on the sea and due to that Navy troops had gone closer and rescued crew members. And they have been handed over to the Indonesian Embassy in Sri Lanka. And the ship has been towed to Galle Harbor."

The Tamil Tigers have waged a violent campaign for a quarter of a century for a separate homeland in the north of the island, distinct from the Sinhalese-dominated south.

After peace talks in Switzerland failed to make progress last year, fighting intensified. The army regained control of the Eastern Province in July.

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