Sri Lankan soldiers captured the last major town held by Tamil Tiger separatists yesterday, moving a step closer to finishing off one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies, the army commander said.
The eastern port of Mullaittivu is one of the final targets of a military onslaught to end a 25-year war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels. The army had not set foot inside it since the Tigers seized it in 1996. "After one month's fight we have totally liberated Mullaittivu town," Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka said in an address on state television. "We will be able to finish this war soon."
Fonseka said the LTTE-held area is down to 300 sq km (186 square miles), cut from 15,000 sq km (5,792 sq miles) when the war reignited in 2006. The capture leaves the LTTE confined to a wedge of jungle in the north-east of the island, with its remaining defences and bases scattered in a handful of villages.
The 59th Division has been battling up the eastern coast toward Mullaittivu for a year and a month ago, reached the edge of the fortified town, which served as a major LTTE operations base.
The army has racked up a string of victories this month, including capturing the rebels' self-proclaimed capital of Kilinochchi and expelling them from the Jaffna Peninsula. Aid agencies say about 230,000 civilians are trapped in the war zone.
Rights groups and the government accuse the LTTE of keeping them as human shields. At least 100 civilians were killed in exchanges last week, according to a government official in the Tiger-controlled area. reuters