/ 18 January 2009

Tamil Tigers surrounded, says Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan government troops have almost completely cornered the Tamil Tigers in their north-eastern jungle base and the rebels’ leader may have already fled the island, the army chief said.

Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka said his forces had surrounded the district of Mullaittivu, the last town held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and hoped to totally overrun the area in the coming weeks.

“We have surrounded them from all sides and the only option for them is to jump into the sea because they still have 40km of coastline,” Fonseka told reporters late on Saturday.

He said he believed Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran may already have escaped by sea.

“We don’t know if he is still there. He may have already fled in a boat,” Fonseka said.

The rebel chief is seen as having no safe havens overseas. The LTTE was trained and armed by New Delhi in the early 1980s, but Prabhakaran is now wanted by New Delhi in connection with the 1991 murder of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The LTTE is also listed by the European Union and United States as a terrorist organisation.

The Sri Lankan army chief, who narrowly escaped assassination in a Tamil Tiger suicide bombing in April 2005, said he hoped to crush the Tigers before his term ended in December 2009.

“I don’t think it will be that long. Hopefully it could be by the [Sinhala and Tamil] New Year [in April],” he said.

The Sri Lankan government pulled out of a Norwegian-brokered truce a year ago, and the biggest offensive in decades of conflict has left the Tigers cornered in Mullaittivu after the fall of their political capital Kilinochchi earlier this month.

Military officials said eight divisions, or about 50 000 to 80 000 troops, were advancing on the Tigers whose numbers were estimated by the military at the start of this year at 1 900.

Fonseka said his troops had advanced 17km towards the rebel-held Mullaittivu area in the past 17 days and that rebel resistance was crumbling faster than the military had anticipated.

This included at least 30 Tamil Tiger guerrillas killed in heavy fighting on Saturday, and about 100 rebel bodies recovered so far this month.

“Tiger casualties are increasing,” he said.

Fonseka said about 16 000 government soldiers had been wounded in recent fighting, mainly as a result of artillery fire. The Defence Ministry has said that about 3 700 troops had been killed in fighting in the past three years.

The army chief said the guerrillas may still have about three light aircraft, although most of the rebel air strips had already been taken by advancing government forces.

“They have one more air strip left at Visuamadu [In Mullaittivu], but we have moved about 4km from there,” Fonseka said, adding that heavy military guns were trained on the last Tiger air field.

The guerrillas had used a light aircraft in September to attack a military base in the island’s north. Since then, the guerrillas have not flown their light planes.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed since the Tamils launched their struggle for a separate homeland in 1972 in the Sinhalese-majority island. — AFP