Page last updated at 08:21 GMT, Friday, 25 April 2008 09:21 UK

S Lanka rebels 'abandon shrine'

Priest beside the statue of the virgin Mary at Madhu shrine
The statue was moved from the shrine recently

The Sri Lanka military says troops have taken control of a church containing the country's most important Roman Catholic shrine.

The shrine, located in the northern town of Madhu, lies on a front line in the renewed civil war between the army and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Both sides in the conflict have accused each other of shelling the shrine area.

Meanwhile it has been reported that at least 165 soldiers were killed in fighting in the far north on Wednesday.

The government has said that 43 soldiers were killed in the fighting in the Jaffna peninsula and that 38 soldiers were missing.

However, military sources have now told the AFP news agency that at least 165 died and that 20 more were missing.

More than 100 rebels were killed in fighting which ended after 11 hours on Wednesday, the military said.

The rebels put their losses at 16. They said they had killed more than 100 soldiers and wounded about 500.

Tamil Tiger rebels have been fighting for an independent state for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka for a quarter of a century.

'Rebels gone'

Photographs have shown considerable damage to the Catholic shrine located in Madhu in the Mannar region of northern Sri Lanka.


An army spokesman said there were no Tamil Tiger rebels at the site when the army reached the location.

Priests fled the complex earlier this month, removing a statue of the Virgin Mary, known as Our Lady of Madhu, deeper into Tamil Tiger controlled territory. It was the first time the statue had been moved for 400 years.

Sri Lanka's military has been trying to crush the Tigers in the territory they hold in the north since completing an operation to drive them from the east last July, he says.

Senior military and government figures predicted swift victory.

But, our correspondent says, the rebels' forces are more concentrated in the north than they were in the east, and some in Sri Lanka are speculating that resistance is stiffer than had been expected.

Journalists are generally denied access to the area where fighting is going on, making it extremely difficult to independently verify the casualty claims both sides make.

At least 70,000 people have died since the civil war began in 1983.

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