Government forces captured the last Tamil Tiger rebel base in Sri Lanka's volatile east yesterday, the army chief said, dealing a major blow to the rebels' two-decade fight for an independent Tamil homeland.
The Tigers maintain control over parts of northern Sri Lanka where they maintain a de facto state, but the fall of their base in Thoppigala in the east would mean that the government has control over the entire eastern province of the country for the first time in 14 years.
The Thopigala base was in a region of caves and crannies that made it an ideal hiding place for guerrillas and the two sides have struggled intensely to control it. Government forces routed the rebels from all of their other bases in east during heavy fighting over the last year.
Troops seized the base yesterday and were chasing fleeing insurgents, army commander Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka said.
Rasiah Illanthirayan, a spokesman for the Tigers, acknowledged that government forces may have captured the Thoppigala base, but said that resistance in the east would not likely be erased entirely.
"We have changed our tactics and it is not surprising if they have entered the region. But whether they will be able to stay there peacefully is another question," Ilanthirayan said by telephone from the northern rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi.
He did not elaborate on the changed tactics.
News of the military's latest victory came hours before peace-broker Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar was to meet top rebels in Kilinochchi to discuss the island's withered ceasefire.
Brattskar flew to Vavuniya, the last government-held town in the north before rebel territory, and would travel overland to the Tigers' headquarters, said Rajiva Wijesinha, a government official.
"I hope he will persuade their political leadership to return to the negotiating table," Wijesinha said.
In January, troops routed the rebels from their eastern strongholds of Vaharai and Kathiraveli villages in the eastern Batticaloa district and launched operations to clear small rebel camps around Thoppigala since February, eyeing for the last rebel bastion.
Senior military officials on the ground said on Tuesday they had hoped to capture or kill the remaining rebels by the end of this month, bringing all of eastern Sri Lanka under government control for the first time since 1994.
The rebels have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's ethnic minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese-controlled governments.
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