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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 February 2008, 18:47 GMT
Sri Lanka troops killed in church
Bombed church in Mannar
Soldiers were cleaning the church during the attack, the army says
Artillery fired by Tamil Tiger rebels in the north of Sri Lanka has killed six soldiers as they cleaned up a Roman Catholic church, the military says.

The military says about 15 shells hit St Sebastian's Church and the area surrounding the building in the village of Thalladi in the Mannar district.

Rebel leaders in the area could not be contacted about the attack.

The civil war in Sri Lanka has intensified since the government pulled out of a ceasefire last month.

'Extensive damage'

"This is another sacrilegious act of the meanest degree," a statement by the Sri Lankan army said.

"They bombed the church in Mannar, when pastors, clergy and a team of soldiers were busy clearing the premises.

Sri Lanka map

"About 15 rounds of rebel artillery fire fell on the church, causing extensive damage to the shrine and other areas."

Victor Sosai, a church official in the Mannar region, told the AP news agency that the military had not allowed civilians to worship in the church over the last two months because of increased fighting in the area.

He said that since fighting in the area has intensified, troops at a neighbouring military base have been using it to store supplies.

The military said that the soldiers had been sent to clean the building at the request of church officials.

Military officials also said Sri Lankan forces had killed more than 40 Tamil Tiger fighters in heavy fighting in the north of the island on Monday.

Booby traps

Ten soldiers had died in the battles, they said.

The Tigers have been fighting for an independent state in the north and east since 1983.

Monday's fighting took place on the frontlines that surround territory the rebels hold in the north of the island.

Many of the casualties from the Sri Lankan army were caused by landmines and booby traps, according to the military spokesman, Brig Udaya Nanayakkara.

He said troops had pushed across the frontlines in Weli Oya in the north-east on Monday and destroyed bunkers, killing 13 Tamil Tiger fighters.

By the time the forces pulled back to their original positions, 10 soldiers had also died and 25 more had been wounded.

The BBC's Roland Buerk in Colombo says that it is rare for Sri Lanka's military to admit suffering such heavy losses in a single battle.

The Tigers have not commented on the claims, but they routinely say the military's figures are wildly exaggerated.

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