Source AP ©

Sri Lanka claims to have seized major separatist rebel base

Sri Lankan troops have driven separatist Tamil rebels from a key base in eastern Sri Lanka, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday, amid calls by the United Nations to end the bloodshed.

There were no military casualties in the assault late Tuesday on the rebels' Kokkadicholai base, military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said, adding the Tamil Tigers fled, leaving behind an arsenal of weapons.

"We have captured the Kokkadicholai base," in Batticaloa district, from which the rebels launched attacks on government troops in the region, Samarasinghe said.

The military has stepped up its operations in the east over the past few weeks, forcing rebels to withdraw from more than a dozen bases and killing more than 140 insurgents, Samarasinghe said.

There was no independent confirmation of his claim.

Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan said they had abandoned the area before the attack. "There were none of our fighters there as we left that place a week ago."

He also said guerrillas thwarted an attempt by paramilitaries to infiltrate a rebel-held area in Chinkaladi, in Batticaloa, on Wednesday, and two attackers were killed in the gunbattle.

"They retreated leaving behind two bodies," said Ilanthirayan.

The rebels blame government troops for supporting paramilitary groups, but the government denies the accusation.

Sri Lanka's government, meanwhile, renewed an offer to hold peace talks with the rebels following two days of dramatic rebel assaults, including a suicide bombing and the insurgents' first air strike in their more than two-decade campaign for a separate Tamil homeland.

The attacks Monday and Tuesday killed 11 people and wounded 36, prompting the government to issue the call for peace talks. The rebels have not responded to the government's suggestion.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the two sides to "break this vicious cycle of attack and retaliation," and "return to the negotiating table as soon as possible, without preconditions."

The rebels launched their fight for an independent homeland for the country's 3.1 million Tamils in 1983 after decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. In the years since, they have pioneered the use of suicide bomb belts and slowly built up a navy of small gunboats.

Hopes for peace that followed a 2002 cease-fire have been dashed in the past 18 months as sporadic shootings and bombings have grown into all-out war in eastern and northern Sri Lanka, where the Tigers want to establish their separate state.

An estimated 65,000 people were killed in fighting before the cease-fire, and at least 4,000 fighters and civilians are estimated to have died in the last 18 months.

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