Sri Lankan troops surged forward on Monday after seizing the last big town held by Tamil Tiger separatists, aiming to strike a death blow to a 25-year insurgency, the military said.
On Sunday, the army announced the capture of the last big town held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the eastern port of Mullaittivu the rebels seized in 1996 and turned into a major military operations and command centre.
With that, the LTTE is now confined to 300 square kilometres of jungle in the Indian Ocean island’s north-east, down from 15 000 square kilometres when the war reignited in 2006.
That leaves the LTTE — on United States, European Union and Indian terrorism lists — with a handful of bases and villages scattered across the jungles from which they have fought since the war kicked off in earnest in 1983.
And many are asking just how quickly the ground war will be over. The army’s commander, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, has forecast total victory by mid-April.
”The troops are consolidating their positions in Mullaittivu today, and the other troops are moving towards Puthukudiruppu and others are fighting south of there,” military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said, referring to an LTTE-held village.
He brushed off analysts who said the Tigers were at home in the thick jungles and could mount a major counter-attack.
”We met them in the jungles. They cleared the underbrush when we were moving forward, which shows they are afraid to face us in the jungles,” Nanayakkara said.
The army has scored three major victories this month, starting with the capture of the rebels’ self-proclaimed capital of Kilinochchi on January 2 and the expulsion of the Tigers from the Jaffna Peninsula a week later.
Aid agencies say about 230 000 civilians fleeing the fighting are trapped in the war zone. Rights groups and the government accuse the LTTE of keeping them as human shields.
At least 100 civilians were killed in artillery exchanges last week, according to a top government official working in the Tiger-controlled area.
The army set up a 32 square kilometre safe zone, but said the LTTE had moved its artillery and heavy weapons inside it.
The LTTE could not be reached for comment. The pro-rebel website www.TamilNet.com accused the military on Monday of hitting the safety zone and killing 22 civilians and wounding 60, citing medical sources it did not identify.
”We have not targeted this area. It is the LTTE that does these kind of things,” Nanayakkara, the military spokesperson, said.
It is difficult to get a clear picture from the war zone, since both sides block independent media from entering it.
The LTTE say they are the sole representatives of the Tamil minority, which complains of mistreatment by successive governments led by the Sinhalese ethnic majority since independence from Britain in 1948.– Reuters