Sri Lanka steps up air attacks against Tiger rebels

COLOMBO (AFP) — Sri Lanka's air force Friday stepped up strikes on Tamil Tiger positions in the island's north as ground battles subsided due to heavy rains, military officials said.

Aircraft carried out half a dozen raids around Kilinochchi, the political capital of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an air force official said.

"We have carried out six missions around Kilinochchi this morning in support of ground troops," the official said. He had no immediate details of casualties.

Elsewhere, helicopter gunships Friday attacked a cluster of rebel boats in the northern area of Kilalli, "inflicting maximum damage," air force spokesman Janaka Nanayakkara said.

Military officials said infantry battles had slowed in the past two days because of rains as well as intense battles earlier in the week when both sides suffered heavy losses.

The LTTE has said that it had repelled a multi-pronged offensive by government forces, killing 170 soldiers and wounding 420 Tuesday and Wednesday.

The military rejected the rebel claims and said it lost only 25 soldiers and placed rebel losses at 120 killed and 250 wounded.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government has been predicting the imminent fall of Kilinochchi for months, and the military recently said it was within "kissing distance" of the town.

In January the Sri Lankan government pulled out of a 2002 Norwegian-brokered truce.

The rebels have been fighting since 1972 for a state for ethnic minority Tamils separate from the majority Sinhalese community.