Sri Lanka's military captures strategic rebel-held enclave

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The Independent Online

Sri Lankan soldiers captured a strategic Tamil Tiger rebel-held enclave in the volatile east, the military said yesterday, as intensified fighting forced thousands of Tamil civilians to flee the area.

Military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said the army "gained complete control over Vaharai," a strategic town in eastern Batticaloa district - the scene of heavy fighting between government troops and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam over the last few weeks.

"Vaharai is one of the strategic points for both sides," Samarasinghe said, adding that insurgents were now firing artillery at the army from the area. "We will clear those pockets also."

In an e-mailed statement to The Associated Press, the Tigers said they "decided to pull back" from the area, but did not elaborate.

An estimated 9,500 people started moving from Vaharai to government-held areas, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday.

"The area has seen months of heavy fighting," said spokesman Ron Redmond. "We call on both parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians and their freedom of movement."

Spokesman Davide Vagnite of the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed thousands of civilians were arriving at government-held areas, but could not give a specific figure.

The UNHCR estimated some 465,000 people have been displaced by conflict in Sri Lanka.

A pro-rebel Web site reported Friday that the army stepped up shelling on Vaharai on Thursday night, forcing 15,000 civilians to flee the area.

"Many women and children were fleeing on foot and bicycles," said TamilNet, adding that 200 tractors with fleeing civilians have reached Kajuwatte in Batticaloa, where there is an army camp.

Meanwhile, deputy military spokesman Maj. Upali Rajapakse said a pre-emptive strike was launched against the Tigers as they were preparing to attack army troops in a separate area in Batticaloa. He said nine rebels were killed and 12 were wounded in the operation.

The military is trying to push the rebels out of the eastern area and regain control of a cluster of rebel-held coastal villages.

The Tigers have been fighting for more than 20 years for a separate homeland for the country's 3.1 million ethnic minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of discrimination by the majority ethnic Sinhalese.

Although both sides claim to be adhering to a Norwegian-brokered 2002 cease-fire, violence has escalated since late 2005 with more than 3,600 people killed last year alone.

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