Source AP ©

Armed conflicts in northern Sri Lanka kill 15 rebels

Army forces stationed along the frontier with rebel-held territory in northern Sri Lanka repelled two assaults by Tamil Tiger guerrillas, killing 15 of the attackers, the military said Tuesday.

No soldiers were killed in the fighting Monday afternoon in the Vavuniya area, just south of the Tamil Tigers' de facto state, said military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara. Rebel spokesmen could not be reached for comment and no independent confirmation of the battles was available.

The fighting took place just hours after rebel suicide attackers infiltrated an air base deep inside government-held territory, killing nine troops and damaging three aircraft in one of the deadliest attacks on the air force in the 24-year-old civil war.

Four other airmen were killed in the crash of their helicopter, deployed to help in the fighting, the military said.

Troops killed 20 of the attackers, and on Tuesday drove their bodies, stripped naked, through the town of Anuradhapura on the back of a tractor as onlookers took photos with their mobile phones.

The attack - which included a bombing raid by the Tamil Tigers' air wing - badly embarrassed the military as it pressed ahead with its fight against the rebels in the north, and opposition politicians called for the immediate resignations of the defense secretary and the air force chief.

On Tuesday, the government announced it had formed a panel to investigate how the Tigers were able to attack the base and another panel to probe the helicopter crash, which it said was caused by a technical malfunction.

Nanayakkara said the attack did not hinder the air force's ability to fight the rebels, pointing to a series of air strikes the military launched into rebel territory Monday morning in retaliation for the attack on the air base.

Fighting in northern Sri Lanka has escalated in recent weeks ahead of what many believe is a planned government offensive to retake the area and crush the rebels.

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland for minority ethnic Tamils after decades of discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting, 5,000 of them since a 2002 cease-fire broke down in late 2005.