/ 25 February 2009

Sri Lankan soldiers enter last town controlled by Tamil Tigers

Sri Lankan troops have fought their way into the last town held by the Tamil Tiger separatist guerrillas, according to government sources. Small groups of soldiers and rebels on Tuesday fought house-to-house through the streets of Puthukkudiyiruppu, on a narrow strip of land in the island’s north-east, controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

”The LTTE are now down to less than 500 fighters … after [Puthukkudiyiruppu] they will be left with just the jungles,” said military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara.

The Sri Lankan army allowed a Reuters journalist into the battlezone, offering a rare insight into a war that has been largely off-limits to journalists. Brigadier Shavendra Silva was quoted as saying the town was ”the last objective” and was measuring the war in days, not weeks.

Troops under his command were less than 6km from the 13km no-fire zone that the army established on Sri Lanka’s north-eastern coast. The UN estimates that 200 000 people are trapped in this thin strip of land and human rights groups have accused the Sri Lankan army of shelling civilians.

The government says the number of Tamils there is closer to 70 000 and disputes that its troops have targeted civilians, blaming instead the Tigers for shooting anyone who tries to flee.

Puthukkudiyiruppu’s fall would be a long-awaited breakthrough, capping a series of big gains for the Sri Lankan army in a war that was widely seen as unwinnable. The Tigers have not lost in three wars with the Sri Lankan military.

However, in recent weeks, the rebels have lost their one-time political capital, Kilinochchi, and their main military base in Mullaittivu. A sign of their desperation came this week when they called for an internationally-brokered truce.

Led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, whose personality cult inspires his followers to commit suicide rather than be captured, the Tigers elicited awe and fear in equal measure. Prabhakaran is presumed to be alive, directing his battle-hardened troops to stage guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks as the army closes in.

A high-ranking official, speaking on condition of anonymity from Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, said Prabhakaran was fighting to the death. ”Sri Lanka did not want to end up like Peru where they caught the terrorist leader [Maoist revolutionary Abimael Guzmán] and spent years in the courts trying to convict him. Prabhakaran I think will take his own cyanide pill.”

There’s no doubt the Tigers have been defanged. The LTTE is the only militant group in the world to have heavy artillery, a rudimentary air force and a navy comprising of warships and submarines.

The rebels are regarded as fanatical in devotion to their cause, a separate homeland for Sri Lanka’s three-million Tamils. However, since August 2006, Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has poured in weapons and manpower into defeating the rebels.

Prepared to spend his way to victory, his government’s defence budget now eats up a fifth of all spending and the armed services have 200 000 fighters.

His strategy was helped by the defection of the Tamil Tigers’s eastern commander, Colonel Karuna, once bodyguard to Prabhakaran. – guardian.co.uk