Sri Lankan air force attacks Tamil rebel bases: 12 dead

Sri Lanka's military launched airstrikes on Tamil rebel bases Wednesday after navy craft came under attack, and a pro-rebel Web site reported at least 12 people killed as the country appeared on the brink of returning to civil war.

The government closed the highway providing the only land link between Sri Lanka's south and Tamil rebel-held areas in the north, said Helen Olafsdottir, spokeswoman for the European team monitoring the country's disintegrating cease-fire accord.

The TamilNet Website said that at least 12 civilians were killed by the airstrikes since they began in northeastern Sri Lanka late Tuesday, but that toll could not be independently confirmed. Military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said the strikes had hit rebel bases only.

It was unclear if the 2002 cease-fire agreement between the Tamil Tiger rebels and Sinhalese-dominated government could survive the latest spasm of violence, which began Tuesday when a suspected ethnic Tamil suicide bomber targeted the government's top military commander.

The officer was wounded and eight other people were killed in the attack, and the government launched airstrikes on Tamil Tiger-held areas later Tuesday in the first major military assault since the cease-fire.

Early Wednesday, Sri Lankan navy ships in the northeast came under rebel attack and air force jets responded with strikes on Tamil Tiger bases around the strategic port of Trincomalee, Samarasinghe said.

"Our navy units have come under terrorist attack this morning and we have retaliated," he said.

A top military analyst said if the government's military operation expands and results in substantial rebel casualties, Sri Lanka will face the prospect of a return to full-scale warfare, reports the AP.

I.L.