Mon, Jan 05, 2009 - Page 4 News List

Sri Lanka says troops are nearing rebel stronghold

AFP , KILINOCHCHI, SRI LANKA

The Sri Lankan army said yesterday it was moving in on the jungle stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels, in a final assault aimed at ending the longest-running ethnic war in Asia.

Flush with confidence after retaking their main city two days ago, the army vowed to capture rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran as troops pushed deeper into northern territory long under the complete control of the guerrillas.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse said in a New Year’s address that this year would be the year of “heroic victory” over the Tigers, who have been waging war since 1972 to establish an independent homeland for ethnic Tamils.

Troops captured Kilinochchi, the de facto capital of the rebel state, on Friday and the general leading the assault said his forces were advancing on Mullaittivu, the Tiger’s last major center of control.

“We are taking the offensive to the Mullaittivu jungles where Prabhakaran is hiding,” Major General Jagath Dias told reporters flown into Kilinochchi for a short and carefully supervised visit to show the city was in army hands.

“We will hunt him down,” he said.

For nearly two years, Sri Lanka has banned independent reporters from rebel-held areas, including Kilinochchi, and the general’s statement could not be independently verified.

Gunfire and artillery barrages could be heard from around the town during the brief press visit. A military official said that ground forces backed by helicopter gunships were moving toward Mullaittivu.

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