Sri Lanka's military said government forces killed nine Tamil rebels in the latest clash on Friday between the two sides, as intensified fighting forced thousands of Tamil civilians to flee from rebel-held villages in the volatile east.
Deputy Military spokesman Maj Upali Rajapakse said the pre-emptive strike against the Tamils was conducted as they were preparing to attack army troops in the eastern district of Batticaloa. He said nine rebels were killed and 12 were wounded in the operation.
There was no immediate comment from the rebels. Separately, the military said Tamil civilians were fleeing the rebel-held village of Vaharai in Batticaloa district, the scene of heavy fighting between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels over the last few weeks.
A "large number of people" are arriving into government-controlled areas from Vaharai, military spokesman Brig Prasad Samarasinghe said.
He did not give an exact number, but said there may be thousands of civilians. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was trying to verify the information.
"We have sent a team to that area and we are checking on that," ICRC spokesman Davide Vignati said.
Last week, United Nations said 15,000 Tamil civilians have been trapped by fighting in Vaharai.
The government says about 20,000 civilians have moved into government-held areas to escape violence.
Clashes between the military and the Tamil rebels have recently been increasing in the Batticaloa region. At least four soldiers and 12 rebels died in fighting there on Tuesday.
Earlier on Friday, Samarasinghe said Tiger artillery and mortar fire had wounded 13 government soldiers late on Thursday in a separate confrontation, also in the east.
The military is trying to push the rebels out of the eastern area and regain control of a cluster of rebel-held coastal villages.
The Tigers have been fighting for more than 20 years for a separate homeland for the country's 3.1 million ethnic minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of discrimination by the majority ethnic Sinhalese.
Although both sides claim to be adhering to a Norwegian-brokered 2002 ceasefire, violence has escalated since late 2005 with more than 3,600 people killed last year alone.