Mon, Nov 17, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lanka ups air raids after taking key town

AFP , COLOMBO

Sri Lanka stepped up air attacks against suspected rebel targets in the island’s north yesterday, a day after ground troops recaptured a highly strategic town, the defense ministry said.

Mi-24 helicopter gunships and fighter jets were deployed to pound defense lines of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the Jaffna Peninsula and on the mainland, the defense ministry said.

“[The] Sri Lanka air force has launched a series of air strikes in support of ground troops in the Muhamalai area,” the ministry said in a statement.

The attacks came a day after Sri Lanka’s president asked Tamil Tiger rebels to surrender after troops said they had retaken the town of Pooneryn from the separatist guerrillas following months of heavy fighting.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse said in a televised address to the nation that security forces took Pooneryn and the main northwestern coastal A-32 route on Saturday morning. The town was taken by troops after several failed attempts during 15 years of Tiger occupation.

Military officials said the fall of Pooneryn was a severe blow to the Tigers who were defending their main de facto capital of Kilinochchi, further southeast, amid a multi-pronged military thrust.

“Despite all their efforts, they failed in their bid to hold Pooneryn,” the Sunday Times defense analyst Iqbal Athas said. “That it was a humiliating defeat for the guerrillas came from radio intercepts from the battle field.”

The fall of Pooneryn shrank Tiger territory by about half and prevented the rebels from using the northwestern seaboard to smuggle weapons and other supplies by boat from India, military officials said.

They said the bigger advantage for the military was the removal of Tiger artillery guns at Pooneryn, which had been used to hit the main Palaly airbase in the Jaffna Peninsula and disrupted regular military flights.

The military has not given details of losses suffered by either side in the battle for Pooneryn, but Athas said both sides had suffered “very heavy casualties” in the fighting.

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