POLONNARUWA, Sri Lanka (AFP) - At least 18 rebels were killed and many wounded when Tamil Tiger guerrillas launched a major attack against a breakaway faction in eastern Sri Lanka, military and rebel sources said.
The battle was one of the bloodiest incidents in an escalation of violence in recent weeks that has severely strained a four-year-old ceasefire between the Tigers and the government.
The main Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) pounded a base of the faction led by V. Muralitharan, better known as Colonel Karuna, in the jungles of Welikanda, a military official in the area said Sunday.
"The fighting is in an ’uncleared’ (LTTE-controlled) area. We have not been able to go there and see for ourselves what is going on," the official said on condition of anonymity.
"What we know is what we have gathered from intercepted radio communications. They speak of 10 killed on Karuna’s side and eight on the other."
Nine of the wounded were admitted to hospital in Polonnaruwa, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Welikanda, where doctors told AFP they were suffering knife, gunshot and blast wounds.
Lying side-by-side in Ward 7, the victims had bandages on their chests, legs, hands, arms and heads. One had lost his hand.
Speaking haltingly through an interpreter, one -- who could not give his name and who was clearly in great pain -- said they were attacked at 1:00 am Sunday.
"There were many of them. They attacked us with machetes, guns and explosives," he said, confirming he and the other wounded were members of Karuna’s faction. He refused to speak further.
Military officials in the area, about three kilometres from the fighting, said they heard automatic rifle fire for about 45 minutes and also rocket-propelled grenades.
The pro-LTTE tamilnet.com website said an LTTE commando unit had launched the assault against Karuna’s Kasankulam base, killing "around 20 paramilitary operatives of the Karuna group" and destroying weapons there.
Sri Lankan troops fired mortars at the attacking LTTE commandos, the Tamilnet said, without mentioning whether there had been any casualties.
The defence ministry denied its troops were involved.
"We have not fired a single shot in that area," ministry spokesman Prasad Samarasinghe told AFP. "But we opened fire with small arms and mortars at two other places last night when our defence lines came under attack."
He said troops at the Kokkuthuduvai and Vavunathivu camps elsewhere in the eastern province came under Tiger fire, which was returned. There were no immediate reports of casualties, Samarasinghe said.
Retired brigadier-general Vipul Boteju told AFP the rebel offensive was expected because the LTTE had said it wanted to wipe out Karuna’s faction.
"This attack could be the prelude to a bigger attack they may be planning against the military," he said.
The Tigers have dubbed Karuna’s faction a "paramilitary force" and wanted it disarmed before entering talks with the government on saving the troubled truce in place since February 2002.
Government forces regard the latest internecine clash as the worst since the main Tiger unit overran Karuna’s bases in April 2004, a month after he split from the main rebel group.
The Tigers have accused the military of supporting the Karuna faction, a charge denied by authorities.
During ceasefire review talks in Switzerland in February, the LTTE insisted that government forces disarm Karuna’s men before another round of negotiations could take place. Talks have since been postponed.
Scandinavians monitoring Sri Lanka’s truce have said paramilitary units were operating in the troubled northeast. On Sunday the government protested another allegation by the monitors, that government forces may have been responsible for extrajudicial killings.
Faced with a recent escalation of violence, peacebroker Norway has been trying to arrange a fresh round of talks amid mounting international pressure on both sides to return to the table.
Nearly 200 people have been killed in the past month.