Fighting kills 40 in northern Sri Lanka

Updated: 2008-02-24 16:25

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Clashes between government forces and Tamil separatists killed at least 40 combatants across northern Sri Lanka, the military said Sunday.

The battles Saturday in Jaffna, Mannar and Vavuniya districts left 39 insurgents and a soldier dead, a military official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan did not respond to calls seeking comment on the military's claims. It was not possible to obtain independent accounts of the battles because reporters are barred from the war zone. Often the two sides exaggerate each other's casualty figures while underplaying their own losses.

Pro-rebel TamilNet Web site reported insurgents killed three soldiers across the defense line in Vavuniya district. The report did not comment on the government's claim that 39 rebels were killed.

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As fighting raged in the north, a bus blast just south of the capital, Colombo, wounded 14 people early Saturday.

The explosion in Mount Lavinia town might have inflicted much worse damage but for the vigilance of a passenger who spotted an unattended parcel on the vehicle and alerted the driver, who stopped the bus and ordered everyone off, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.

"Within minutes the bomb exploded," said passenger Ajith Prasanna Peiris.

The bus driver, who was among the wounded, managed to move the bus some meters (yards) away from his passengers and escape the vehicle just before the explosion, Nanayakkara said.

Nanayakkara blamed the Tamil Tiger rebels for the bus attack Saturday. Bomb blasts blamed on the Tamil guerrillas have killed at least 19 people and wounded scores more in and around Colombo since January. The rebels did not comment on the blast.

The Tamil Tiger rebels have been fighting since 1983 to create an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's minority ethnic Tamils after decades of marginalization by governments controlled by the ethnic majority Sinhalese.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

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