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Sunday, January 31, 1999 Published at 17:55 GMT

World: South Asia

Upsurge in Sri Lanka fighting

The Tamil Tigers are fighting for a separate homeland

The Sri Lankan government has said that 50 Tamil Tiger separatist guerrillas have been killed or injured during some of the most intense fighting on the island for four months.

Susannah Price reports: The recent lull in fighting is only expected to be temporary
The defence ministry said navy boats clashed with a flotilla of vessels of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) off the north-east coast.

The navy sank sank two rebel boats in a fierce battle in which the Tamils have conceded that they lost three senior fighters.

"Naval troops confirm two terrorist boats caught fire and other boats escaped with heavy damages," said a ministry statement, adding that one naval boat had been damaged during the sea battle.

The LTTE have been fighting for a separate homeland for minority Tamils in the north and east of the country since 1983. Tens of thousands of people have died in the war. The Tamils say the majority Sinhalese - who control the government and military - discriminate against them.

Return to violence?

There have been sporadic clashes between the two sides in recent weeks, but the BBC Correspondent in Colombo, Susannah Price, says the conflict has remained at a relatively low level since up at least 1,000 soldiers and rebels were killed during intensive fighting in September.

Both sides have needed time to recruit since then and the monsoon rains in the north east have also slowed them down, but the weekend's violence demonstrates that this was unlikely to be anything more than a temporary lull, our correspondent says.

Heavy fighting

But on Saturday there were clashes on land as well as at sea. The defence ministry said in a statement that an army patrol had confronted a large group of LTTE guerillas in the eastern Batticaloa district and heavy fighting ensued.

"Troops confirm more than 25 terrorists were killed or wounded," the ministry said.

It said troops had killed five rebels in the northern Wanni region when they attacked three LTTE bunkers on Saturday, northwest of Mankulam town - captured by the military last September.

Also on Saturday, peninsula troops in northern Jaffna had fired artillery and mortars at rebels, killing or wounding 17 of them, the ministry said.

There has been no independent confirmation of the government's account of the clashes.

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