Sri Lanka says 34 rebels killed in fighting

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) Troops collected the bodies of 31 rebels after intense clashes near Puthukkudiyiruppu, the last township held by the Tamil Tigers inside a tiny, shrinking territory, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.

Soldiers also recovered 50 assault rifles and communication equipment, he said.

The military also ambushed and killed three rebels who infiltrated Viswamadu, a village previously captured by government forces, the military said in a statement.

The Tigers -- who once commanded a de facto state across a large swath of the island's north and east -- have been pushed into a small sliver of coastal land measuring just 8.4 square miles (21 square kilometers) on the northeastern coast.

The military's account of the battles cannot be verified because independent journalists are barred from the war zone.

Although there has been heavy fighting in the same area for weeks, the government says it is close to crushing the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa said earlier this week the military was exercising restraint over concerns about civilian casualties.

Tens of thousands of civilians are trapped in the war zone. The military says the rebels are holding them as human shields in a desperate attempt to avoid defeat. But the Tigers say the people do not want to leave and have asked for their protection.

More than 23,000 civilians escaped last month, and the government estimates 30,000 to 40,000 are still trapped.

Walter Kaelin, the representative for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the rights of internally displaced people, was to meet government and aid officials and visit camps during his five-day visit starting Thursday, according to a U.N. statement.

The government announced Thursday it has taken steps to improve conditions for displaced people living in camps in line with a U.N. recommendation.

Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told reporters 1,108 individuals from roughly 270 families who were scattered by the fighting and lived in separate camps have been reunited.

The United States has donated $15,000 worth of food aid to Sri Lanka, sufficient to feed 300,000 displaced people for four months, the U.S. Embassy in Colombo said in a statement.

The aid represents 21 percent of the total food aid called for this year by the World Food Program, the statement quoted USAID Mission Director Rebecca Cohn as saying.

The Tamil Tiger rebels have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have faced decades of marginalization by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.


(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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