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16 killed in SL battles as summit continues

Fresh fighting between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger separatists killed 14 rebels and two soldiers across the embattled northern region, the military said.

world Updated: Aug 03, 2008 12:21 IST

Fresh fighting between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger separatists killed 14 rebels and two soldiers across the embattled northern region, the military said on Sunday as South Asian leaders gathered in the capital.

Leaders and officials from eight South Asian nations are in Colombo for an annual summit at which they are expected to approve accords on fighting terrorism, including freezing funds used for attacks. The two-day South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation meeting concludes on Sunday.

The latest fighting comes despite an unilateral cease-fire declared by rebels, from July 26, as a goodwill gesture in honour of the summit. However, the rebels have said they would defend themselves if attacked.

The government rejected it as a ploy by the rebels to gain time to regroup after several recent battlefield losses. Government troops continued with ground and air attacks on the rebel-held areas in recent days.

As fighting continues in the restive north, the government has sealed off roads across the capital and sent 19,000 troops and soldiers onto the streets to prevent any bombings. A rebel attack near Colombo during the summit would be deeply embarrassing for the government.

The newly reported fighting took place in Mullaitivu, Mannar, Jaffna and Welioya regions on Saturday, said Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, the military spokesman.

Soldiers attacked and killed seven rebels in Mullaitivu while in Jaffna, two rebels were killed in a confrontation along the front lines, he said.

Separate battles killed five rebels and two soldiers in Mannar and Welioya, said Nanayakkara.

Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan was not available for comment. Both sides routinely exaggerate enemy casualties and underreport their own. Independent verification of the fighting is not possible because journalists are barred from the war zone. The South Asian summit brought together the heads of government of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said on Sunday that his government does not believe that military force would resolve Sri Lanka's decades-old conflict.

The government needs to work toward a political solution to the conflict that guarantees respect for the rights of all people on this Indian Ocean island nation, he said.

Boucher, who is an observing at the summit, also expressed concern about unresolved cases of human rights abuses and threats against journalists and called for the demobilization of armed paramilitary groups.

Boucher said he met with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and expressed US support for Sri Lanka's "war on terror" but also expressed concern about human rights.

"The human rights situation here is a particular concern of ours," he said.

The Tamil rebels have been fighting for an independent state in the north and east since 1983, following decades of marginalization of ethnic Tamils by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. The fighting has escalated in recent months after the government vowed to crush the rebels by the end of the year. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict.