Sri Lanka meets tough Tamil Tiger resistance in north
A rush-hour bomb blast killed dozens near Colombo, Friday. Earlier, the Army announced it had recaptured a key church.
Scores of Sri Lankan soldiers and Tamil Tiger rebels were killed this week in fierce fighting that has diminished the government's claim that it will wrest the north from rebel control by the end of the year.Skip to next paragraph
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On Friday, military sources told reporters that at least 165 soldiers had been killed and more than 20 were missing after heavy fighting Wednesday in Sri Lanka's far north. Earlier, the Army had claimed 43 soldiers and 100 rebels had died, while the rebels claimed they had killed 100 soldiers and lost only 25 of their own men.
Friday evening, violence struck near the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, when a bomb went off on a bus during rush hour. At least 24 people were killed, and twice that number wounded, according to a government spokesman, who held the Tamil Tigers responsible. The rebels did not comment immediately.
Observers of this week's fighting say both sides overstate their enemy's losses, while low-balling their own. But they also say that the battle has revealed the apparent strength of the Tiger forces in the north, which the government had claimed were on the decline.
"The rebels' fight came as a big surprise to both the Army and the government," says Iqbal Athas, a leading Sri Lankan journalist and defense correspondent for the country's Sunday Times newspaper. "But one of the biggest problems of this war has been the constant underestimation of the rebels by the government."
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority in the east and north of the country since 1983. The war is estimated to have killed at least 70,000 people.
Last year the government, which is dominated by the island's Sinhalese majority, seized control of the east from the rebels. Now it is focusing its efforts on the north of the country, an area known as the Wanni, which is tightly controlled by the Tigers.
On Friday, the Army appeared to have scored a major victory when it announced that it had captured a centuries-old Roman Catholic church in Madhu, in the island's northwest.
The 17th-century Dutch-built church has assumed a symbolic importance in Sri Lanka's long ethnic war. It has been under Tiger control since 1999 and is one of the island's most important Christian shrines, home to a 400 year-old statue of the Virgin Mary that many of the island's Roman Catholics believe is sacred.
The government says local Tamils have long used the church as a sanctuary to escape the Tigers, who are notorious for enforced recruitment of child soldiers.
But while many analysts say that the Army now has the upper hand in the north, no one sees a clear victor emerging any time soon.