Heavy fighting and artillery fire raged on northern Jaffna Peninsula today as the army said it had pushed back an offensive by Tamil separatists in the heaviest fighting since a 2002 truce.
On Saturday, the rebels broke through defenses on the army-held peninsula, where some 40,000 troops, mainly from the Sinhalese majority, are based in a Tamil-dominated area cut off from the rest of the island by rebel territory.
A senior army source in the area said today that the night had been relatively quiet but that the military had launched a major operation at first light.
Aid workers reported heavy shelling.
"The area is now totally under control," an army spokesman said, although analysts were skeptical.
Aid workers reported an unknown number of civilians from rebel territory fleeing south toward the rebel headquarters in Kilinochchi as air force spotter planes flew overhead. Most relief staff sheltered in clearly marked compounds.
Thousands of civilians were reported to be trapped by the fighting, much of it focused around the village of Muhamalai, a dividing line between territories controlled by the government and the rebels and a strategic spot along the only highway into the core of the peninsula.
More than 200 rebels and 27 government soldiers were killed in the fighting Saturday, military spokesman Brig. Athula Jayawardana said. Eighty soldiers were injured, he said.
Rebel leaders could not be reached for comment on their casualties, and the government's report could not be confirmed.
Meanwhile, a senior Sri Lankan official coordinating peace efforts was fatally shot Saturday in a suburb of the capital, Colombo, police said.
The government blamed the rebels for the assassination of Ketheesh Loganathan, deputy head of the government's Peace Secretariat, which has been coordinating a Norway-brokered peace process since 2002.
A government website said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam killed Loganathan "in its quest to eliminate prominent Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka opposed" to the rebels.