COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Artillery fire hit three schools being used as shelters from fighting raging Thursday between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels, killing 18 people in a northeastern town, the military said.
A military spokesman, Maj. Upali Rajapakse, blamed the rebels for the artillery attacks on the schools in the coastal town of Muttur. The pro-rebel TamilNet Web site blamed government forces for at least one school attack, where 10 people died. The rebels made no statements about the other two schools.
"The terrorists are firing artillery from their bases, and three schools have taken the hits," Rajapakse said. The rebels may be targeting small military camps next to the schools, he said.
He said one government soldier was killed Thursday in Muttur and five more were wounded in a gunbattle with the rebels. No other details were available.
The rebels could not be reached for comment, and phone calls to their headquarters in the northern town of Kilinochchi were unanswered.
Both sides claimed to have the upper hand in the fighting in Muttur, a government-held town bordered by rebel-controlled villages and jungle. But with the area closed to outsiders, the situation could not be independently verified.
The latest surge in fighting came a day after dozens of rebels infiltrated Muttur, near the strategic port town of Trincomalee, setting off intense gunbattles that continued into Thursday afternoon.
A two-decade civil war killed about 65,000 people before a 2002 cease-fire that left wide swaths of the north and east under rebel control. Escalating violence since December has shredded the truce and killed at least 900 people, half of them civilians.
On Thursday, TamilNet claimed the rebels, who want to carve out a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's 3.2 million minority Tamils, had taken control of parts of Muttur.
Intense fighting was under way as "hundreds of heavily armed (Tamil Tigers) who have taken control of the town center laid siege to four Sri Lanka army camps on its periphery," TamilNet reported, quoting local residents.
Government accounts were different.
"Overnight, the terrorists managed to get inside and are hiding in homes of residents," chief government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told The Associated Press. "The town is under our control," he said.
He said the military was not using heavy weapons, fearing they could hurt civilians.
Officials said the rebels, operating in groups of two or three, were pressing attacks around the town, including against the main telecommunications building and a police station.
Rajapakse accused the rebels of erecting road blocks preventing the evacuation of 60 to 70 wounded people.
The fighting has sent hundreds of people fleeing into churches, mosques and schools. On Wednesday, an artillery round hit a church where some 600 people had taken shelter, killing an 8-year-old boy, TamilNet reported.
A Defense Ministry statement said government forces killed 40 Tiger rebels and wounded 70 Wednesday in heavy fighting in and around Trincomalee, including Muttur. The fighting has also killed eight government soldiers and wounded 57 since Wednesday. Rajapakse said casualties suffered by the rebels Thursday were not immediately known.
The clashes have been among the fiercest since the 2002 cease-fire.
The latest violence was sparked after the rebels shut down a reservoir and cut off water to nearby government-held villages. The military responded with airstrikes and a ground assault.
Norwegian envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer was scheduled to arrive in Sri Lanka on Friday to meet with Sri Lankan government and rebel leaders to try to settle the dispute, Norwegian embassy spokesman Tom Knappskog said Thursday.
Separately, New York-based Human Rights Watch said more international monitors were needed after three of the five Nordic countries overseeing the cease-fire decided to withdraw observers.
Sweden, Finland and Denmark have said they were pulling out for security reasons. The rebels had demanded that EU members withdraw after the 25-nation group labeled the Tamil Tigers as terrorists.