Sri Lankan army advances on Tigers

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The Independent Online

Battle tanks rumbled north, attack helicopters flew overheard and artillery fire roared through the jungles as Sri Lankan forces pushed ahead with an offensive aimed at capturing the Tamil Tigers' last strongholds.

A rebel-affiliated Web site reported that the insurgents stalled a military advance on the road to its northeastern stronghold of Mullaittivu killing 43 soldiers and wounding 80 others Sunday, two days after the military seized the rebels' administrative capital of Kilinochchi.

The government led a victory tour of the newly seized areas in the north, providing journalists a rare glimpse of the war zone and the damage left behind.

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.

TamilNet Web site reported that the government troops started their thrust east of Paranthan but were forced to abandon their march after suffering heavy casualties.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara confirmed there were sporadic clashes in the region but denied significant casualties. He didn't elaborate or give more details.

"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 push deeper into insurgent territory, and one rebel was killed in new fighting.

From Paranthan Junction, artillery barrages aimed at the rebel areas could be heard every two minutes.

Tanks rolled out of the crossroads, lined with war-damaged buildings and a pulverized gas station. A memorial to slain rebel fighters in the middle of the road was now surrounded by flags from the army units that captured the area.

Special forces troops with rifles and grenade launchers prepared to head to battle as aircraft flew overhead.

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.

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.