COLOMBO Sri Lanka's military on Tuesday seized control of a town that served as a "nerve centre" for separatist Tamil Tiger rebels, on a second day of fighting that killed at least 50 people along the nation's northern frontline.
The capture of Mallavi town from Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerrillas was the latest thrust by Sri Lanka's armed forces in an intensified offensive in recent weeks aimed at encircling the rebels and crushing them by year's end.
Soldiers from the 57th Division overran "the LTTE's most strategic bastion at Mallavi ... following weeks-long heavy confrontation," the Defence Ministry said in a statement.
Earlier on Tuesday, the military said it had captured three-quarters of Mallavi on Monday. It published pictures showing troops in Mallavi's centre around a Sri Lankan flag which it said had been raised in place of a Tamil Tiger flag.
It also showed photos of a hospital it said was used as a command centre in Mallavi, which is at the junction of roads the army says the Tigers use to ferry supplies.
Two rebels and one soldier died, and two soldiers were wounded during the battle on Monday, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
The rebels could not be reached for comment, but told the pro-rebel website www.tamilnet.com that they had killed seven soldiers 20 km (12 miles) west of Mallavi near the port of Nachikudah on Monday and Tuesday.
The military said it had hit Tiger bunkers there with air and ground assaults on Monday and Tuesday. Monday's battles killed 26 rebels and wounded 18 while two soldiers died, Nanayakkara said.
Colombo-based military analyst Iqbal Athas said the capture of Mallavi, taken together with other recent army advances near land the Tigers claim as a separate state for the ethnic minority Tamil people, foreshadowed a new phase of the war.
"The fact the troops have gone into Mallavi shows they are now on the outer fringe of the heartland. How the future advance in the next few weeks is going to be is the critical question now for the rebels and the government," Athas said.
Also on Tuesday, www.tamilnet.com quoted the Tigers as saying they had killed five Special Task Force commandos in ambushes on Monday and Tuesday in Ampaarai district. The military said one police officer and a commando were killed there on Tuesday.
Fighting in three other locations on Monday killed 15 insurgents and wounded 32, the army said. Two soldiers also died and at least three were wounded, Nanayakkara said.
Figures are difficult to verify independently since the military restricts journalists from the battle zone and both sides routinely distort the tolls to their advantage.
Two weeks ago, the military said it was within artillery distance of the Tigers' administrative seat of Kilinochchi, 330 km (205 miles) north of the capital Colombo and a symbolic target for the government.
In January, the government officially threw out a ceasefire both sides had barely observed, and has laid out $1.5 billion to spend on a goal of eliminating the LTTE by the year's end.
The LTTE is on U.S., Indian and European terrorism lists and has been at war with the Sri Lankan government since 1983, one of Asia's longest-running modern insurgencies.
They say the Sinhalese ethnic majority, three-quarters of Sri Lanka's 21 million people, has used its control of the government to marginalise them since independence from Britain in 1948.