The Red Cross collected the bodies of 600 soldiers from Tamil rebels Wednesday after the heaviest fighting this year in Sri Lanka's intractable ethnic war.

Red Cross spokesman Harsha Gunawardene said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam handed over the bodies at Mallavi, 25 miles southwest of Kilinochchi, a key town wracked by fierce fighting.In addition, the military itself said it collected the bodies of at least 262 soldiers killed in the battles for a strategic highway that began Sunday. The military said it killed 477 rebels and that more than 300 soldiers were wounded.

The military has waged a costly yearlong battle for the highway linking Colombo to the government-held northern town of Jaffna.

Since May last year, government forces have wrested control of two-thirds of the highway from the guerrillas. Complete control would open a land route to the Jaffna peninsula, a former rebel stronghold in the north that the army captured two years ago.

The government is relying on expensive air and sea deliveries of food and other commodities to Jaffna's half-million residents in the absence of a road link.