COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Tamil rebels and Sri Lankan troops fought one of their fiercest battles in years yesterday, battering each other with small arms and mortars in a confrontation that the military said killed 52 guerrillas and 38 soldiers.
The rebels said they killed more than 100 soldiers and lost only 16 of their fighters in a 10-hour firefight they characterized as a rout of the heavily armed government forces.
Either way, the battle was a serious blow to the government's promise to capture the Tamil Tigers' de facto state in the north, crush the rebel group and end the 25-year-old civil war in this Indian Ocean island nation by the end of the year.
As with most battles, the two sides gave very different accounts.
The military said fighting broke out just before dawn when rebel forces overran government positions in the rugged Muhamalai region of the Jaffna peninsula, north of rebel-held territory
Government troops fought back with small arms, mortars, and tanks, eventually driving off the assault and launching a counteroffensive that pushed 500 yards into Tamil Tiger territory, the military spokesman, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, said.
Soon after the ground fighting, air force jets and helicopters destroyed two rebel artillery positions and hit rebel bunkers in the area, the military said.
Nanayakkara said 38 government soldiers died and 84 were wounded. The toll was the worst suffered by the military since the government pulled out of a tattered cease-fire with the rebels in January and stepped up its attacks.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan accused the military of sparking the battle. "They attempted to get near our positions. That's when the clashes erupted," he said.
In a later statement e-mailed to reporters, Ilanthirayan said the fighting began about 2:30 a.m., when troops backed by armored vehicles and artillery batteries tried to capture rebel fortifications on the front line.
The guerrillas fought back in a battle that lasted past noon and eventually forced the troops to withdraw to their earlier positions, he said.
Both sides routinely inflate casualty figures for the other side and underreport their own losses.