Sri Lankan troops begin fierce attack on rebels: Government tries to cut vital guerrilla supply route in Jaffna peninsula

COLOMBO - Sri Lankan government forces attacked northern rebel-held areas yesterday in a big offensive against Tamil separatists. Military sources said about 340 people had died, including soldiers, rebels and civilians.

Troops, backed by air force bombers and heavy artillery, had thrust into the Jaffna peninsula in an attempt to cut off a vital guerrilla supply route, military sources and defence analysts said. About 175 rebels, 125 soldiers and 40 civilians had been killed in three days of fierce fighting, bombing and shelling.

Government security forces have been fighting a bitter 10-year war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who want a separate state in the north and east for the minority Tamil community.

Troops advanced about 14km (nine miles) northwards from their base in Elephant Pass in the biggest offensive in more than a year.

'The rebels are heavily entrenched in that area,' a military analyst said. 'They are in an ambush position, therefore troop casualties have been very high. Now they are deep in rebel territory, attacked from all sides. That is why they have resorted to such heavy firepower.'

Military officials said most of the army casualties occurred on Wednesday, during infantry charges and rebel mortar attacks. A statement from the Defence Ministry said 91 soldiers, including six officers, had been killed and 175 wounded.

'During the advance, troops inflicted heavy casualties to the terrorists. It was confirmed that troops destroyed a well-fortified terrorist women's camp, including several lines of their defences,' the statement said. It also said air force fighters and artillery had destroyed rebel targets.

Military sources said the objective was to try to seal off the Kilali lagoon crossing in the peninsula, which is used by the Tigers. While the rebels control most of the Jaffna peninsula, the military has bases from which it can launch operations. The military has sealed off land routes to the peninsula but rebels still use the lagoon to travel to and from the mainland. The lagoon is out of bounds for all boats but is still used by civilians who have no other means of travel.

Patrolling navy gunboats have had several fierce clashes with rebel boats. The Tigers use suicide fighters who ram navy boats with explosive-laden vessels. In August this year, 21 sailors died and three boats were destroyed in suicide attacks.

'The operation seems to have been triggered off by the recent attacks. The only way to stop movements across the lagoon is to control the shore,' another analyst said.

'That way, the rebels will have to break through the troops to get on the lagoon and take on the navy. The lagoon is the only access the Tigers have to the mainland, so it is very important for them,' he said.

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