At least 12 soldiers were killed and 16 went missing in action as heavy fighting continued to rage across Sri Lanka's embattled north, causing heavy damages to the Tamil Tiger rebels, military authorities in Colombo said on Sunday.
The Ministry of Defence said that pitched battles broke out in the early hours of Saturday at Iranaimadu, a village adjacent to the rebels' political capital Kilinochchi, when the rebels launched dawn-to-dusk attacks to retake some of the strategic areas they lost to advancing troops barely a week ago.
"Troops of the Army 57 Division successfully thwarted an LTTE counter offensive launched in the north of Iranaimadu area at around 6 am. During the battle that lasted till 6 pm, 12 soldiers laid down their lives while 16 others went missing," the defence ministry said on Sunday.
"Intercepted terrorist radio transmission revealed heavy damages to the LTTE," it said, adding that 34 government soldiers also suffered injuries during these clashes.
In support of the ground troops battling the rebels, Israeli-built Kfir and Russian-built MiG-27 fighter jets of the Sri Lankan Air force from early Saturday carried out "seven successive air strikes targeting LTTE defences and strategic locations in Wanni, causing heavy damages to the LTTE".
"Heavy payloads were dropped with precision at identified LTTE positions. (These) sorties were launched in support of navy and the advancing Task Force-1 and 57 Division troops at the Wanni battlefront," the defence ministry said.
The pro-rebel Tamilnet website quoting LTTE sources in the Wanni said: "The LTTE counter-offensive unit carried out a pre-emptive strike on Sri Lankan Army (SLA) offensive formation in Murikandi-Iranaimadu area Saturday, killing at least 60 soldiers."
"The SLA was pushed back two km, and the Tigers said they have recovered 12 dead bodies of SLA soldiers so far in the clearing mission," the TamilNet web report said, claiming that the pre-emptive strike was carried out by the rebels as the military was preparing for another offensive push.