Sri Lanka says it is about to seize rebel capital

Friday, January 2, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lankan forces have captured a key crossroads from Tamil Tiger rebels in the north and will seize the guerrillas' de facto capital by the weekend, the military said.

The fall of Kilinochchi would be devastating to the separatist group, which has been forced out of much of its territory in the north of the Indian Ocean island nation amid a renewed government offensive in recent months. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has promised to crush the rebel group and end the nation's 25-year-old civil war this year.

Senior officials have said repeatedly over the past two months that Kilinochchi would fall soon, but troops became bogged down by heavy rains and fierce rebel resistance. The town has been in rebel hands for about a decade.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said Thursday that the capture of the strategic Paranthan junction earlier in the day -- after about six weeks of fighting -- left troops about a mile from the town on both the north and the south.

"Kilinochchi will fall within the next 48 hours," he said.

The rebels could not immediately be reached for comment. But Tamil Tiger political leader Balisingham Nadesan told The Associated Press on Tuesday that they began as a guerrilla group and would be able to keep fighting even if they lost much of the territory they controlled in the north.

"We are used to all types of wars," he said.

The government drove the rebels out of their strongholds in the east in 2007 and forced them out of much of their de facto state in the north last year.

The rebels have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for the minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization by successive governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. The conflict has killed more than 70,000 people.

In addition to opening another front in the battle for Kilinochchi, the fall of Paranthan also isolates a rebel stronghold at Elephant Pass to the north and allows soldiers to march into rebel territory to the northeast, Nanayakkara said.

Soldiers also captured Iranamadu junction south of Kilinochchi on Thursday, he said, saying it would further aid troops in their battle for the town. He did not give casualty details.

The latest government offensives have forced the rebels to abandon territory and retreat into an increasingly shrinking area in the northeast.

It is difficult to verify battle accounts or the size of the remaining rebel territory because reporters are barred from the war zone. Both the government and rebels are known to exaggerate enemy casualties and underreport their own losses.

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