At least 26 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed on Wednesday in the heaviest fighting in months as Tamil Tiger guerrillas put up fierce resistance to an army offensive in the northern Jaffna peninsula.
Military officials also said 78 soldiers were wounded in battles that erupted at dawn, hours after a unilateral cease-fire by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) expired.
“There is very heavy fighting. The terrain is narrow and favors the LTTE, but we have advanced about two km (1.2 miles) using a zigzag movement,” said military spokesman Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne.
Air force jets and heavy artillery bombarded rebel positions as tanks and troops broke through the first LTTE defense line around Pallai, the last rebel-held town within artillery range of Jaffna peninsula’s two ports and only airstrip.
Karunaratne said the rebels hit back with a barrage of artillery and mortars from Elephant Pass, the isthmus gateway to the peninsula, that along with Pallai was captured by the LTTE last year during a massive offensive that brought them to the gates of Jaffna city, 30 km (18 miles) to the northwest.
The military has since rolled back most of the rebel gains, but a push to take Pallai in January was stopped in its tracks by ferocious rebel resistance.
Karunaratne could give no casualty figures for the LTTE, whose only comment on the latest fighting was a report on a pro-rebel Web site (www.tamilnet.com) that said the battles had begun one hour before the truce expired at midnight on Tuesday.
A government statement issued on Wednesday dismissed the truce as a farce and said the rebels had violated it 224 times since it took effect on Christmas Eve.
The government refused to match the truce, but the battle fields have been relatively quiet since the end of January and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar suggested the army had scaled back operations “out of a degree of decency.”
The lull in the fighting was accompanied by growing hopes that peace talks were around the corner as a Norwegian-brokered peace initiative to end the conflict, which has claimed as estimated 64,000 lives, gathered momentum.
On Wednesday, President Chandrika Kumaratunga was quoted by state media as saying the door was still open to talks.