Sri Lanka honors troops fighting rebels
By RAVI NESSMAN,Associated Press Writer AP - 1 hour 6 minutes ago
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Sri Lankans raised flags and held a moment of silence Monday in honor of the military, as troops pushed deeper into rebel-held territory in the north in their offensive aimed at crushing the Tamil Tigers and ending the 25-year-old civil war here.
Government forces have won a string of stunning victories over the rebels in recent months, forcing them to withdraw from much of the de facto state they once controlled in the north. On Friday, troops took control of the rebels' administrative capital, Kilinochchi, dealing a harsh blow to their dreams of establishing a separate state for ethnic Tamils here.
The rebels, as well has hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting, are now confined to a jungle area slightly larger than the city of Los Angeles.
In honor of the troops, and of those slain in the war, the government held flag raising ceremonies across the country and called for two minutes of silence, even as the military pressed ahead with its attacks.
Troops clashed with the rebels across the Mullaittivu district Sunday and recovered the bodies of at least 15 guerrilla fighters slain in the battles, the military said Monday.
Rebels could not be reached for comment on the fighting.
However, the rebel-affiliated TamilNet Web site reported Sunday that the insurgents stalled a military advance on the road to its northeastern stronghold of Mullaittivu killing 53 soldiers and wounding 80 others Sunday.
The military gave no figures for its own casualties.
Independent confirmation of the fighting was not available because the military usually bars journalists from the war zone.
On Sunday, however, the military brought some reporters on a victory tour of the Kilinochchi area, where they watched battles tanks rumble north to the war zone, attack helicopters fly overhead and heard artillery fire roar through the jungles.
Special forces troops with rifles and grenade launchers prepared to head to battle as well.
The army was using Paranthan Junction, a strategic crossroads the military captured Thursday, as a staging area to send troops into the fight for two of the biggest prizes remaining in the battle, the rebel-held areas of Elephant Pass to the north and Mullaittivu to the east.
"Day by day, the Tigers' territory is shrinking and their numbers are dwindling. The objective of finishing this war won't be that long off," said Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias, who commanded the battle for Kilinochchi.
In Kilinochchi itself, nearly every building was missing its roof, and many of the structures were badly damaged, presumably from airstrikes and artillery barrages.
Dias said the former rebel headquarters would be used as the main staging area to launch future offensives against the Tamil Tigers.
The town, and the main highway running through what was once the rebel heartland, were nearly deserted, except for some stray dogs and abandoned cows.
Army teams waved land mine detectors over the road bed and dug up the middle of the main A-9 highway searching for booby traps left behind by the fleeing rebels.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 to create an independent homeland for Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization by governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. The conflict has killed more than 70,000 people.
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