Sri Lankan troops regroup to defend Jaffna

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Thousands of Sri Lankan troops fanned out Friday to defend their hold on the former rebel capital, a day after the government imposed censorship on foreign media and gave the military wide powers to help fight Tamil insurgents.

The government's Information Department said the military successfully repulsed several rebel attempts to breach the defense line.

''Troops supported by artillery and mortar fire effectively repulsed all terrorist attempts compelling them to withdraw southwards,'' Ariya Rubasinghe, director of information, said in a statement. Rubasinghe is also the government's chief censor.

Rubasinghe said two soldiers were killed and one wounded in the latest fighting. He listed rebel deaths at 458 killed since the rebel offensive to take the Elephant Pass causeway began on April 27.

''Troops at present are in a stronger position consequent to the pullout from Elephant Pass and are poised to launch attacks on the temporary defenses occupied by the terrorists,'' he said.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting for 17 years for an independent homeland for the country's 3.2 million minority Tamils. They accuse the majority Sinhalese of widespread discrimination in education and jobs, a charge the government denies. The government labels the Tamil rebels as terrorists, accusing them of attempts to divide the country.

The rebels did not post any new information on the group's Internet site today, but the Voice of Tiger radio, monitored in Vavuniya, said the battle continued. It did not give details.

Earlier, a senior military official said the morale of the military, seriously undermined after recent rebel successes, has improved since the government's stand against the rebels' advance toward their former capital, Jaffna. The official spoke on condition that he not be named.

The military official said the string of setbacks, in which the Sri Lankan troops lost several key bases, had come to a stop. Soldiers' morale was also boosted by the government's statement that it is satisfied with the response it has gotten from requests for help from friendly countries, the official said.

The government has not released any details of its requests. But on Thursday, Sri Lanka renewed diplomatic ties with Israel after a 30-year lapse. Tel Aviv welcomed the resumption of diplomatic ties with Colombo and said a delegation of Sri Lankan officials would travel to Israel to discuss renewed relations.

Sri Lanka is hoping to get weapons from Israel to replenish armaments lost in the recent battles with the rebels.

A Russian delegation has arrived in Sri Lanka, state-run radio said today. The report did not give a reason for the Russian presence, but Sri Lanka has in the past bought arms and aircraft from the former Soviet Union.

Sri Lanka was put under war status on Thursday, when the government invoked the Public Security Act. The law gives sweeping powers to the military, police and administration to deal with the Tamil rebels' threat to divide the country.

The government can now seize aircraft, ships and any property without giving a reason, ban publication of newspapers and leaflets and prohibit demonstrations and strikes that may harm the country's war effort.

The international journalists' group Reporters Sans Frontiers has criticized the government for censoring foreign media coverage of military operations. The Paris-based group said it sent a letter asking the government to lift the censorship and ensure the safety of Sri Lankan and foreign reporters working in the country.


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