Source AP ©

Sri Lankan soldiers kill 5 Tamil rebels

Five Tamil Tiger rebels were killed by Sri Lankan soldiers during weekend fighting in which troops seized a key coastal territory that served as a supply point for insurgents in the north, the military said Monday.

The military began the offensive Saturday aimed at seizing control of areas south of Mannar, saying rebels were holding some 6,000 civilians against their will.

The operation killed five insurgents and no soldiers, said military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe.

He said troops captured Silavathurai and Arippu villages, which were used by insurgents as transit points for arms and ammunition and even suicide bombers to carry out attacks in government-held areas.

Soldiers also captured a camp belonging to the Sea Tigers, the rebels' naval wing, which Samarasinghe said insurgents used to unload smuggled weapons.

Mannar, about 220 kilometers (135 miles) northwest of Colombo, lies on the edge of government and rebel-controlled territory and has become a flash point in the country's escalating conflict.

Phone calls by The Associated Press to rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan went unanswered.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, said it did not send monitors on Monday to the nearby Uliyankulam crossing point - which effectively shut the crossing down - because the violence in the area threatened their safety. The ICRC was speaking with both sides to try to get guarantees for their security, said ICRC spokesman Davide Vignati.

The ICRC usually monitors the crossing, where about 5,000 people pass a month, three days a week.

The rebels want to create an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils who have suffered decades of discrimination by Sinhalese-controlled governments.

A Norwegian-brokered 2002 cease-fire brought temporary relief, but more than 5,000 people have been killed in new fighting in the past 22 months, bringing the death toll from more than two decades of fighting to more than 70,000.

Despite the collapse of the cease-fire, neither side has officially withdrawn from the pact, fearing international isolation.