- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - Fierce fighting between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels defending their last remaining territory in the country’s war-ravaged north killed 93 rebels on Saturday, the military said.

The military also said it destroyed three rebel boats and recovered a torched bulletproof vehicle belonging to the leader of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

Government forces are in what they say is a final push to defeat the rebels _ the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam _ and end 25 years of civil war.

A string of major victories by the military in recent months, in which the rebels’ administrative capital and main bases were captured, has pushed the guerillas into a small strip of coastal land measuring just 8.4 square miles (21 square kilometers) in the northeast.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said separate battles broke out Saturday as soldiers fought to capture the remaining rebel territory.

Soldiers found the bodies of 93 rebels after the battles, he said, without giving details of casualties suffered by government forces.

A military statement earlier Saturday said five vehicles, including one used by rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, were recovered late Friday. It said the rebels torched them as they withdrew.

Navy spokesman Cmdr. Mahesh Karunaratne said a sea battle took place in the middle of the night when 10 rebel boats were intercepted by the navy.

He said the navy destroyed one boat, disabled a second, and that ground forces destroyed two others when they tried to beach under heavy navy fire. The remaining boats fled. Karunaratne did not know how many Sea Tigers, as the rebel navy wing is called, were killed.

He said some navy boats were damaged. The Sri Lanka military does not give casualty figures.

Accounts of the battles cannot be verified because independent journalists are barred from the war zone.

Karunaratne said the rebel boats took off from and returned to a government declared “no-fire” zone, which makes up almost all the war zone. The military says the rebels have set up bases in the zone, which was designated to protect the tens of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting.

The United Nations and aid and rights groups have expressed grave concerns about the civilians caught in the fighting.

The military says the rebels are holding them as human shields in a desperate attempt to avoid defeat. But the Tigers say the people do not want to leave and have asked for their protection.

The U.N. says an estimated 150,000 to 190,000 people are trapped, resulting in dozens of deaths each day. But the government says more than 23,000 civilians escaped last month and 30,000 to 40,000 still remain.

The Tamil Tiger rebels have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have faced decades of marginalization by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

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On the Net:

Ministry of Defence: https://www.defence.lk

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