COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Sri Lankan forces raiding a Tamil rebel camp killed 18 fighters, all but four of them girls, in a gunbattle Sunday in the Jaffna Peninsula, an official spokesman said.
Child soldiers were leading the fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam near the camp in Navatkuli, 12 miles north of Jaffna, a defense ministry spokesman said. Soldiers discovered after the gunbattle that most of the dead guerrillas were children.
''When our troops fired at the camp, they fired back and in the fighting 18 of them were killed,'' he said. ''Our soldiers were surprised to see that child soldiers dominated the group.''
Children, especially girls, are among the most efficient fighters in Sri Lanka's 17-year-old war between government forces and the Tamil rebels. They can carry bombs and infiltrate enemy lines, and are often not fired at by adult soldiers.
Children as young as 10 are groomed to be efficient killers, made possible by modern lightweight weapons.
Child rights groups say both the government and the rebels use children as fighters.
The government denies this. The Tamil rebel group has admitted only once to using child fighters. During a 1998 visit by Olara Otunnu, U.N. representative for Children in Armed Conflict, they said they would stop recruiting fighters under 16.
There is no credible estimate of how many child fighters are with the Tamil rebels. But the Sri Lankan military says it often finds one or two bodies of children among 10 to 15 rebels killed in battle.
The Liberation Tigers on Thursday announced a monthlong unilateral truce that begins at midnight Sunday, as a goodwill measure to boost the peace process. But the government rejected the cease-fire and launched a military offensive against the rebels that left 167 combatants dead and 123 wounded, according to the defense ministry.
As the battle raged in the north, a mainstream Tamil political party said in the capital, Colombo, that it was essential to get a Norwegian-mediated peace process back on track.
''We think that with the aid of the Norwegians, every effort must be made to overcome this impasse,'' said R. Sambandan, leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front.
The government said Saturday that the war against Tamil Tiger rebels would continue until negotiations produced results.
Sambandan's party represents moderates among the country's 3.2 million minority Tamil population who fear that the current deadlock may scuttle any chance of a negotiated settlement to the war.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east in war that has killed more than 63,000 people.
Both the government and the militants have agreed to hold talks but the rebels want a cease-fire first. The government says it cannot trust the Tamil Tiger rebels because they didn't honor a 1995 cease-fire.