Captured rebel land in Sri Lanka deserted

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The Independent Online

The main highway running through what was once Sri Lanka's rebel heartland was nearly deserted today, except for some stray dogs and abandoned cows.

Two days after the military captured the Tamil Tigers' administrative capital of Kilinochchi, the government led a victory tour of the newly seized areas, even as fighting raged on in the north and east as soldiers sought to capture the rebels' last jungle strongholds.

The land surrounding Kilinochchi was eerily abandoned.

The scattered buildings lining the road have been pulverized by shelling. Army demining teams waved mine detectors over the road bed and dug up the middle of the A-9 highway searching for booby traps left behind by the fleeing rebels.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians lived in the Kilinochchi district and other regions that were controlled by the rebels before new fighting in the quarter-century civil war erupted again three years ago. Those people have disappeared into the jungles as well, fleeing ahead of the recent government offensive.

The government has barred independent journalists from traveling to this area for a year and a half, but it agreed to bring reporters here to show off its success in driving the rebels out of their main stronghold.

"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 the town of Kilinochchi.

Rebel spokesmen were not available for comment, but previous efforts to destroy the group have failed.

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.

The military said Sunday that troops continued to battle the rebels north and east of Kilinochchi, pushing deeper into insurgent territory but encountering resistance. A military statement Sunday said that one rebel was killed in the fighting.

During Sunday's tour of Kilinochchi, reporters were shown the 11-mile-long (17-kilometer-long) defensive fortifications the rebels built to defend their capital. A moat 1 1/2 yards (meters) wide and 2 yards (meters) deep was filled with stagnant water, empty mortar shells and unexploded grenades.

Behind it, stood an earthen wall more than 2 yards (meters) high and 5 yards (meters) deep. Every 10 yards (meters), there was a break in the massive barrier where guard posts and sniper positions made of logs and branches had been built.

Clothes and rubber flip-flops lay scattered about, along with makeshift stretchers made of sacks and two sturdy sticks.

Dias said the rebels fought fiercely to defend Kilinochchi.

"It was very difficult to walk into Kilinochchi. It took 1 1/2 months to breach the earthen berm and ditches of the Tigers," he said.

The journalists were also escorted along the main A-9 road that once ran through the center of the rebel's de facto state, until the guerrillas were driven off all the land west of the highway.

After a 2002 cease-fire, the road became the main link between rebel-held territory and government-controlled lands. Trucks bearing food and other goods plied the highway, fostering commercial ties, economic growth and hopes for peace between the two sides.

The latest fighting has dashed those hopes, and the government has vowed to destroy the rebels.

The A-9 road is now covered with detours into the bush, designed to keep travelers away from mined areas.

The military also planned to bring reporters into the town of Kilinochchi itself later in the day.

Dias said the former rebel headquarters would be used as the main staging point to launch future offensives against the rebels.