January 4, 2009 / 6:02 PM / in 10 years

Sri Lanka presses on against rebels after taking HQ

KILINOCHCHI (Reuters) - The Sri Lankan military said on Sunday it was pressing on to defeat rebels and catch their leader, two days after seizing the Tamil Tigers’ de facto capital Kilinochchi.

A Sri Lankan military police officer directs the traffic as military tanks patrol along the road in Paranthan, near the town of Kilinochchi, January 4, 2009. REUTERS/Buddhika Weerasingh

There has been no direct comment from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the fall of the town that was long the centre of their fight for an independent homeland for the island’s Tamil minority.

Sri Lankan troops cleared mines on Sunday from the town which journalists were allowed to visit on a tour. Intermittent gunfire and artillery barrages could be heard in the distance.

“We will continue this operation to capture rest of the LTTE area and (reclusive rebel leader) Prabhakaran soon,” said Major-General Jagath Dias who had led government troops on Friday into the town.

The loss of Kilinochchi is one of the biggest blows to the rebels in years.

One hospital there was being used as a refugee registration centre.

“The LTTE kept us by force but we escaped fortunately,” a 50-year-old man, who said he fled the rebels with 23 other people, told reporters.

Details of casualties from the fighting have not yet emerged.

A pro-rebel web site www.tamilnet.com said the Tigers had moved their headquarters further northeast before the town fell.

“The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) has entered a virtual ghost town,” the website said. “The Tigers, who had put up heavy resistance so far, had kept their casualties as low as possible in the defensive fighting.”

The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 in one of Asia’s longest civil wars in which more than 70,000 people have died.

Their main stronghold, once a bustling economic centre, is now largely deserted with devastated and bullet-ridden buildings.

A year ago, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government scrapped an increasingly tattered six-year-old truce brokered by Norway, saying the rebels were using it to regroup and re-arm.

The LTTE says it is battling for rights for ethnic Tamils in the face of mistreatment by successive governments led by the Sinhalese majority since the former Ceylon won independence from Britain in 1948.

Sri Lanka’s military said it bombed Tiger positions in the north on Saturday and was now targeting the port of Mullaitivu.

Security has been tightened following a suicide bombing that killed three air force personnel in the capital Colombo after President Rajapaksa announced the fall of Kilinochchi.

At least three people were injured and several vehicles damaged in an explosion on Saturday in the commercial quarter of the capital.

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