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Sri Lankan Soldiers Kill  9 Tamil Rebels, Civilians Flee Fighting

The Sri Lankan military says its troops killed at least nine Tamil Tiger rebels Friday, as fighting between the two sides intensified in the country's east.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had no immediate comment about the latest clash in the Vakarai region of Batticaloa district.

Military officials and non-government aid workers in the region say thousands of Tamil civilians are fleeing the rebel-held territory.

United Nations officials say more than 20,000 refugees have moved into government-held areas in recent weeks to escape the violence.

The coastal Vakarai region is a key link for rebel-controlled territories in eastern and northern Sri Lanka.

Fighting between Tamil rebels and government troops has escalated since late 2005, although both sides say they remain committed to the ceasefire Norway brokered in 2002.

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. They say Tamils have been victimized for decades by the country's Sinhalese ethnic majority.

The conflict has claimed some 6,000 lives.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.