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    70 Tamil Rebels Reportedly Killed in Land, Sea Battles

    Sri Lanka's military says land and sea clashes in the past day have left about 70 Tamil rebels dead. VOA's Steve Herman reports from New Delhi that the fighting in the east of the country comes before a widely anticipated push by government forces to try to wipe out the rebels in their northern stronghold.

    Sri Lanka's military said the rebels were killed on land and at sea and that it destroyed three small camps belonging to the separatists.

    The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels are fighting for a separate state in the island's north and east.

    The director of the military's Media Center for National Security, Lakshman Hulugalle, says the latest casualties are part of a campaign to eradicate the insurgents in the eastern part of the country.

    "Operations have been going on for the last couple of weeks. It is a thick jungle with caves. These people have been hiding under caves and inside caves, so we have been clearing this area," said Hulugalle.

    Earlier, Sri Lanka's navy fought a sea battle with a cluster of rebel boats off Point Pedro, along the north-eastern coast of the country.

    The military said five vessels were sunk and nine others damaged when a navy patrol boat came under attack from the fleet of LTTE boats. The navy said it did not lose a boat.

    Military officials say they called in air support to destroy part of the enemy flotilla while the Army fired multi-barrel rockets at the rebel vessels.

    There is no independent verification of the casualty figures. Both the government and the rebels are known to routinely inflate the enemy death toll.

    Lakshman Hulugalle, at the military's media center, predicts that the rebels will be vanquished in the east within days.

    "After we clear and rehabilitate these areas the next step is to clear the north," he said

    While there has been no comment from the LTTE on the latest fighting, it said earlier it would struggle to hold on to its territory after making what it called "tactical withdrawals."

    An estimated 70,000 people have died during the past two decades in fighting between the government and the rebels. About 5,000 people have been killed since December 2005 when violence flared again, despite a three-year old ceasefire mediated by Norway.

    The rebels have been waging a bloody campaign since 1983 to create an independent state for Sri Lanka's three million ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindus. The government is run by the majority Sinhalese, who are primarily Buddhists.


    Steve Herman

    A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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