Air force jets attacked a rebel intelligence base deep in northern Sri Lanka early on Wednesday, stepping up a punishing wave of airstrikes a day after Tamil Tiger fighters launched a surprise attack on a military base, the military said.
The Tamil Tigers said the bombs hit a civilian settlement in the rebel's administrative capital of Kilinochchi, destroying 12 houses. Separate battles between the two sides killed 19 rebels and two soldiers, the military said.
The air force has conducted a series of bombing raids over rebel-held territory in the north since the Tamil Tigers attacked a military complex in Vavuniya early Tuesday with a massive artillery barrage, aerial bombing and a ground assault conducted by suicide attackers.
The military said that attack killed 13 troops, 1 civilian and 11 of the attackers. The rebels said at least 20 government troops and 10 rebel fighters were killed.
Independent verification of the fighting is difficult to obtain because most journalists are banned from the war zone. Both sides routinely exaggerate enemy losses and underreport their own. Violence along the war zone in the north has escalated as the government pressed ahead with its promise to crush the separatists and end the 25-year-old civil war by the end of the year. In recent weeks, a reinvigorated military offensive seized large areas of land from the rebels.
Battles along the war front in the Kilinochchi, Welioya and Vavuniya areas killed 19 rebels and two soldiers on Tuesday, said military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara.
With the fighting worsening, the government announced it was barring all foreign aid workers from rebel areas, and the United Nations said on Tuesday it would be pulling its staff out this week. Many aid workers said they feared for the welfare of the 160,000 people displaced by the fighting if the aid groups are forced to withdraw.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed strong concern about the increased hostilities in the north and the grave humanitarian consequences for civilians, according to a UN statement issued on Tuesday.
"In light of the government's request for the relocation of UN humanitarian staff in affected areas, he reminds all concerned of their responsibility to take active steps to ensure the safety and freedom of movement of civilians, allowing humanitarian organizations to do their work in safety, as well as to reach persons affected by the fighting who need humanitarian assistance," said a statement from the UN spokesman's office. The military said its airstrike on Wednesday hit a rebel intelligence center in the Kilinochchi region as a high-profile meeting took place inside.
"It's not a retaliatory attack, but based on intelligence," Nanayakkara said.
The Tamil Tigers, in a statement posted on the Web site of their peace secretariat, said the jets bombed a civilian settlement and destroyed 12 homes. No one was injured because the residents had fled into shelters during the attack, the rebels said. The 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. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict.