At least 95 people have been killed in the three days of clashes between security forces and ethnic Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka, the military said Tuesday.
The military launched a major assault on Sunday to retake a Tiger-held enclave in the east, which it claimed posed a threat to a strategic naval base in Trincomalee district, AP reports.
The military said 79 combatants had been killed in the combined army, navy and air force operation. The rebels said 82 people, including 20 civilians, were killed in intense shelling and airstrikes.
Military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said another 16 Tamil Tiger rebels were killed Tuesday morning when they fired on an army check point in northern Vavuniya district. The soldiers returned fire, killing the 16. He did not say if any soldiers were killed or wounded in the attack.
Also Tuesday, air force jets bombed a rebel naval base in Tiger-controlled Mullaithivu district, in the northeast. No casualty figures were available.
Both sides routinely inflate the other's death tolls, and independent confirmation is virtually impossible as conflict zones are off limits to outsiders.
The push to retake Sampur, in northeast Trincomalee district, opens a new front in the more than two-decade conflict between ethnic Tamil rebels and the Sinhalese-dominated government, which was temporarily halted by a 2002 cease-fire.
Samarasinghe said the goal of the operation was to loosen the rebels' hold on the area south of Trincomalee naval base and specifically to destroy their fire power.
"Our aim is to neutralize (rebel) artillery and heavy mortar bases. Yesterday we destroyed a minimum of three artillery bases," Samarasinghe said Tuesday.
"These bases are a very big threat. The (rebels) have been firing at the naval base and also at civilians in the area," he said.
Thirteen soldiers and 66 insurgents have been killed since Sunday, the military said. The rebels' political leader for the east, S. Elilan, said that 50 government soldiers, 12 rebel fighters and 20 civilians had been killed.
"They tried to advance into our areas from two directions yesterday and when we counterattacked, they stopped before the forward defense lines," the de facto frontier between rebel and government-held territory.
"Today they started moving again and we have halted them," he told The Associated Press from Trincomalee.
An officer at the National Media Center for Defense said troops are advancing slowly toward Sampur and that heavy fighting was ongoing.
Elilan said the rebels would never cede Sampur to the government.
"If the government attempts to come into our territory we will continue to attack them .... These are people's homes. We will not let the enemy invade," he said.
The country's top-ranking military official, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, told The Associated Press on Monday that the operation was intended to safeguard the strategic Trincomalee harbor and navy base.
He said the insurgents have been using four villages south of Trincomalee to fire artillery and mortars at the base.
"If the (rebels) continue to attack the harbor it will paralyze the Trincomalee-to-Jaffna supply route," the general said.
The Sri Lankan military is reliant upon the Trincomalee port to supply its more than 43,000 troops on Jaffna Peninsula, since the road link passes through rebel territory.
The Tigers took up arms in 1983, claiming that the country's 3.2 million Tamils needed a separate homeland away from the discrimination of the majority Sinhalese.
The resulting conflict cost the lives of at least 65,000 people before the 2002 cease-fire halted large-scale fighting.
In recent months, however, Sri Lanka has returned to the brink of full-scale war, with both sides launching major military offensives, although neither has officially withdrawn from the cease-fire.
Hundreds of combatants and civilians have been killed since late July, and 204,000 people have been displaced by near-daily airstrikes and shelling.