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Sri Lankan troops seize rebel base

The military has control of the east for the first time in 13 years.

July 12, 2007|From the Associated Press

KILINOCHCHI, SRI LANKA — Government troops on Wednesday seized the last Tamil Tiger rebel base in the volatile east, giving authorities control of the region for the first time in 13 years, the army chief said.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, however, warned Sri Lanka's military that the fight was far from finished. "If they are coming into our territory, they will find stiff resistance from our people," said Rasiah Ilanthirayan, the Tigers' military spokesman.

"We will deploy the necessary tactics and the necessary tools to protect our people from the opposing force," he said.

President Mahinda Rajapakse praised Sri Lankan soldiers who "captured the last stronghold of the terrorists located in Thoppigala."

"I remember with honor all heroes of war ... who sacrificed their lives or were wounded in this exercise, carried out on behalf of the country," Rajapakse said.

Meanwhile, Ilanthirayan accused the government of carrying out an air raid on a rebel-held northern village, killing two civilians and wounding 11 others.

Air force planes pounded Alambil village in the northern district of Mullaitivu, Ilanthirayan said.

Air force spokesman Capt. Ajantha Silva said the target was a rebel sea base, and denied attacking civilians. "We had identified it, and we are sure about the target," he said.

The fall of the eastern area dealt a significant blow to the Tamil rebels' dream of establishing an independent homeland in the nation's north and east.

"The modus operandi may have changed, but the fighting will continue," Seevaratnam Puleedevan, a top rebel official, told the Associated Press in the northern rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi, where the Tigers maintain a de facto state.

Norway brokered a cease-fire between the two sides in 2002, but violence has flared over the last 20 months, with assassinations, airstrikes and steady fighting killing more than 5,000 people. However, neither side has been willing to declare the cease-fire over.

The military offensive to retake the east began last year as tensions increased across the country. In January, troops routed the rebels from their eastern coastal strongholds of Vaharai and Kathiraveli villages in Batticaloa district.

In April, the army drove Tiger fighters out of the major population centers, where they had maintained their own courts and police departments, and into Thoppigala, a vast, sparsely populated area.

Thousands of soldiers, led by commandos, were chasing down small groups of retreating rebels, said army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

Former Air Marshal Harry Goonetilleke said the seizure of Thoppigala was an important success for the military, but that keeping it wouldn't be easy.

"You can win a battle with 2,000 troops, but to hold it you need 10,000 minimum," he said.

The rebels have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's minority ethnic Tamils. The Tamils have endured decades of discrimination at the hands of the majority Sinhalese, who dominate the government. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

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