Sri Lanka: Army has seized last rebel stronghold

Monday, January 26, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lankan forces captured the Tamil Tigers' last major stronghold Sunday, confining the rebels to a narrow slice of jungle and ending their decade-long domination of the country's north.

Army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka said the ethnic separatist war that has plagued this Indian Ocean island nation since 1983 was nearly over.

But analysts warn that it is simply shifting from a conventional fight between two armies to a guerrilla war likely to be fought among the estimated 250,000 displaced civilians reportedly trapped in the northern jungles with the rebels.

In recent weeks, the Sri Lankan army drove the rebels from their administrative capital of Kilinochchi, forced them to retreat from most of the de facto state they controlled across a wide swath of the north and boxed them into a shrinking pocket of land.

On Sunday afternoon, troops entered the coastal town of Mullaittivu, the last major town under the rebels' control, and drove off the fighters remaining inside, the military said.

"The Sri Lankan army captured the Mullaittivu bastion completely today," Fonseka said in a speech broadcast Sunday evening on every major television channel.

Sri Lankans across the capital, Colombo, exploded in celebration, honking horns and lighting firecrackers, as they have for all the military's recent victories.

The military made an all-out push last year into the north, where the Tamil Tigers ran an autocratic regime complete with its own police, courts and customs department.

Defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella described Mullaittivu as the rebels' last bastion and main operations center. The rebels had held the town since 1996 when they overran a military camp there and killed nearly 1,000 soldiers.

Rebel officials could not be reached for comment because communications to the northern war zone have been cut. However, they have in the past expressed a willingness to return to guerrilla warfare if necessary.

It is impossible to verify the military's accounts because independent journalists are barred from the area.

Fonseka said the 25-year-old civil war was "95 percent" over and he appealed for new recruits to join the army and help complete the job.

The government's string of victories has left the rebels confined to a 115-square-mile area in the jungle, the military said.

The rebels seek to create a separate state in the north and east for minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of successive governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

A 2002 cease-fire deal fell apart amid new fighting three years ago, and the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa vowed to destroy the rebel group and end the war. Backed by record budgets, the military heavily recruited new troops and went on a spending spree for new weapons.

The military captured insurgent-held territories in the east in 2007 and last year pushed deep into the rebels' northern heartland.

Despite the success of the military offensive, analysts cautioned against too much optimism. Velupillai Prabhakaran, the rebels' dictatorial leader, remains at large and the ethnic tension that has fueled the conflict remains unresolved.

"There is still a lot of work to be done," Sri Lanka's former army commander Gen. Jerry de Silva said.

"It is likely they [the rebels] will resort to guerrilla tactics, both jungle and urban," he said, adding that the jungle canopy above much of the remaining rebel territory could make it difficult for troops to rely on air support.

Jehan Perera, a political analyst, said government forces could face an "enormous humanitarian and military challenge" in fighting the rebels in the midst of a large number of civilians.

Human rights groups have accused the Tamil Tigers of preventing the civilians from fleeing the war zone, while the government has said the rebels hoped to use the civilians as human shields. Reports of civilian casualties in the area have grown in recent weeks.

Last week, the government declared a 13.5-square-mile "safe zone" on the edge of the rebel-held area and called for civilians to gather there.

However, regional medical officials accused the military of firing into a village and a hospital in the "safe zone" last week, killing at least 30 people and injuring more than 100. The government denied responsibility for the attack.

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