Sri Lanka seizes key rebel defense line in north
By RAVI NESSMAN,Associated Press Writer AP - Wednesday, January 7
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Sri Lankan troops broke through the Tamil Tigers' northern defense lines Tuesday, the military said, opening another active front in their war against the beleaguered guerrillas.
The capture of Muhamalai on the Jaffna peninsula was another blow to the separatist rebels amid a surging military offensive that has backed them into a small pocket of jungle in the northeast.
"Our forces are moving, and very confidently, and they are moving forward," defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said.
He said the government hopes to clear the entire north of rebels in the "coming weeks" and effectively end the 25-year-old civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people on this Indian Ocean island nation.
For more than a decade, the rebels have run a de facto state in parts of northern Sri Lanka, squeezed between the government-held Jaffna peninsula _ the northernmost point in the country _ and the rest of the island to the south.
The renewed government offensive from the south forced the rebels to abandon much of their territory _ including their administrative capital of Kilinochchi last week _ but troops in the Jaffna peninsula had been unable to break open the Tamil Tigers' heavily fortified northern lines at Muhamalai.
In April, the rebels reportedly lured troops into an artillery ambush in Muhamalai that killed scores of soldiers in what was widely seen as a disaster for the military.
On Tuesday, ground troops backed by artillery and mortar fire raced across the front lines there and captured the rebel positions in about an hour, facing little resistance, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.
The rebels retreated to a fall back position about 600 yards (meters) to the south, he said. The insurgents appeared to have moved their artillery into the northeastern jungles _ to avoid having it captured by government forces sweeping up from the south _ and were consolidating their positions on the edge of the narrow isthmus connecting Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the island, he said.
Those troops were closing in on the strategic town of Elephant Pass and had cut off the main route connecting the insurgents on the peninsula with the main rebel bases to the south, nearly boxing that rebel force in a 20-kilometer- (13-mile-) corridor, Nanayakkara said.
Only a tiny sliver of land along the east coast that remained under rebel control connected the two sections of rebel territory, he said.
"They are almost trapped," he said. He declined to say how many rebel fighters were believed to be in the area, saying only that they were a "significant force."
The rebels were not available for immediate comment. It is not possible to get independent accounts of the fighting because journalists are largely barred from the war zone.
In an interview with the rebel-affiliated TamilNet Web site, the rebel political chief, Balasingham Nadesan, said the Tamil Tigers have been in difficult situations before but have always come back.
However, military analysts say the current situation is the most dire the rebels have faced.
Aid groups and diplomats, meanwhile, have expressed concerns about the safety of the hundreds of thousands of civilians living in the rapidly shrinking rebel-held area.
The Tamil Tigers have been fighting to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization by governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority.
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