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Hundreds killed in Sri Lanka battle

One of the bloodiest battles in Sri Lanka's 13-year-old civil war raged by land, sea and air Saturday as Tamil rebels lay siege to a key coastal military base.

The rebels say they have destroyed the Mullaittivu base, killing 800 government soldiers and losing 120 of their own men since Thursday, according to a statement issued by their London office.

The Sri Lankan military said soldiers were still defending the base, 170 miles north of the capital, Colombo. Maj. Tilak Dunuwille, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said 211 soldiers and sailors and 425 rebels have been killed.

But other military officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the number of soldiers killed was far higher. The base had 1,200 personnel.

The fighting began five days before the 13th anniversary of anti-Tamil riots in which more than 2,000 people were killed.

More than 42,000 people have been killed since then, when the Tamil Tiger rebels launched their war for an independent homeland. They accuse the Sinhalese majority of discrimination in education and jobs.

For the past three days, government soldiers have fought hand-to-hand battles with Tamil guerrillas who broke through defenses at the Mullaittivu base.

The battle also has involved fighter planes, gunboats, helicopters and infantry fighting around the coastal base and in the nearby sea.

On Saturday, air force helicopters dropped hundreds of commandos near the camp to help the besieged soldiers. Helicopters also dropped ammunition, food and medical supplies.

"The reinforcing troops, while overcoming resistance, continue to advance," the military said.

The rebels said the commandos had been surrounded, suffered severe casualties and faced "virtual annihilation." They said the commandos' leader was killed.

On Friday, rebel suicide squads slammed two speedboats packed with explosives into a navy gunboat. The gunboat had a crew of 38 and was carrying an undetermined number of additional sailors. Four people survived.

The civil war's biggest previous battle was in November 1993, when 754 soldiers and sailors and 700 rebels were killed in four days of fighting at a military complex in northern Sri Lanka.

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