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Sri Lankan authorities seize about 700 anti-personnel mines

Soldiers seized hundreds of anti-personnel mines, bombs and other explosives during a search of three former rebel-held villages in eastern Sri Lanka, the military said Monday, as the guerrillas claimed to have retaken territory in the north in fierce weekend fighting.

The 685 anti-personnel mines, 22 bombs and anti-tank mines were recovered Sunday in Verugal, Pankudaveli and Panichchankerni villages, an official at the Defense Ministry information center said on condition of anonymity, citing policy.

The military had captured the three villages from Tamil Tiger rebel control in the past few months, and the official said the guerrillas may have hidden the explosives there.

In the country's north, rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan said the guerrillas had retaken about 7 square kilometers (2.7 square miles) of territory along a de-facto border between government and rebel-held areas in the Vavuniya district during weekend clashes, after losing it several months ago.

"We are holding that place and consolidating our positions," Ilanthirayan said.

However, Lt. Col. Upali Rajapakse of the Defense Ministry information center denied that government troops had retreated.

Rajapakse said 52 guerrillas were killed in the weekend fighting, while Ilanthirayan said 30 government soldiers had died.

It was not possible to verify the claims. Both sides often inflate casualty figures for the other and lower their own.

On Sunday, Red Cross officials identified the bodies of two ethnic Tamil employees who had been abducted earlier and shot to death. The bodies were found Saturday in Ratnapura district, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) southeast of Colombo, Red Cross head Neville Nanayakkara said.

Nanayakkara said the two men were involved in tsunami reconstruction and had been in Colombo to attend a two-day workshop.

They were abducted on Friday while waiting for a train at a station in the capital, he said.

Hundreds of people have been abducted in recent months amid a deepening conflict between Tamil rebels and the government.

Aid workers have been increasingly targeted in the conflict, and the execution-style killing last August of 17 local workers of the international aid group Action Against Hunger in the eastern town of Muttur drew widespread international condemnation.

Sri Lanka's undeclared war continues to worsen despite a 2002 cease-fire that remains officially in place. Since the Norwegian-brokered truce began crumbling in December 2005, more than 5,000 people have been killed, according to European cease-fire monitors.

Tamil Tiger rebels have fought government troops since 1983 to create a separate homeland for the country's 3.1 million minority ethnic Tamils, who have suffered decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.

About 70,000 people have died in the conflict.

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