Troops take coast as rebels face defeat in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka said on Saturday it had smashed the Tamil Tigers’ maritime capability as Colombo pressed on with an offensive to crush the rebels amid growing international pressure over its tactics.

A military official said two troop divisions had linked up to grab the last piece of coastline held by the Tigers and they would soon be stripped of the remaining land they controlled.

In the latest appeal to Sri Lankan authorities, France and Britain joined forces to urge Colombo to live up to its commitments and avoid using heavy artillery in its endgame push against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In a letter addressed to Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapakse released by Paris, foreign ministers Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband warned that ”there have been a number of reports that your security forces have not lived up to these commitments”.

Sri Lanka announced on April 27 that it was halting the use of heavy weapons and air strikes to spare civilian lives in its battle against the Tamil Tigers, but said it was not calling a truce.

”The use of aerial bombing is a very clear contravention of the commitments that you and your government have given,” Kouchner and Miliband’s letter continued.

And a draft statement drawn up ahead of a meeting of European Union foreign ministers on Monday called for the fighting to ”stop now”.

”The EU is appalled by continuing reports of high numbers of civilian casualties, including children, following recent intense fighting,” said the draft statement from Brussels.

The UN’s human rights office meanwhile said on Friday an independent probe into possible war crimes in Sri Lanka’s combat zone was vital as officials said some 50 000 civilians were still trapped by the fighting.

The Sri Lankan military official said on Saturday that the land held by the Tigers was dwindling and they soon faced defeat.

”The Tigers still have a few square kilometres of land, but not the use of the beach front,” he said, adding that the rest of the rebel-held area would be taken soon.

State television, which has journalists travelling with the soldiers, also reported that the Tigers had lost control of the coastline and no longer had access to the sea.

”This is a very significant development in the war against the terrorists,” military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said as he declared the Tigers’ maritime capability has been wiped out.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has vowed to take the last territory from the Tigers by Sunday, ending the separatists’ decades-long armed campaign for an ethnic Tamil homeland.

The Tigers controlled nearly a third of the island only two years ago, operating an effectively autonomous Tamil state.

Their defeat in conventional warfare is unlikely to bring peace to Sri Lanka, instead seeing Tamil fighters return to the guerrilla hit-and-run tactics that they have used to devastating effect in the past.

Nanayakkara earlier told AFP that around 10 000 civilians had managed to flee to government areas on Friday, and that there was now ”hardly anybody left” in the rebel zone on the north-east coast.

”They are slowly giving up. They are blowing up whatever arms and ammunition they have,” Nanayakkara said of the remnants of the once-powerful Tamil Tiger army.

Rebel fighters attempted several suicide strikes against advancing troops but snipers took out the attackers before they could cause any damage, the army said in a statement.

There was no immediate word from the Tigers, but the pro-rebel Tamilnet website said the area was clouded in smoke as fighting raged.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, was heading to the island in a fresh effort to stop the carnage, and was expected to reach Colombo late on Saturday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only neutral organisation working in the conflict area, said its staff were ”witnessing an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe”. — AFP



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