COLOMBO: Sri Lankan government troops were Monday pushing into the last pockets of jungle still held by Tamil Tigers after the capture of the rebels’ last urban stronghold and military headquarters.
Soldiers on Sunday overran Mullaittivu, a northeastern coastal lagoon town that was the Tigers’ main base for more than a decade, the island’s army chief announced in a televised address to the nation.
The Tigers’ latest setback follows the loss three weeks ago of their political capital of Kilinochchi, where they had the trappings of a separate state with their own police, courts and a bank.
Army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) now controlled just a “small strip” of land in the northeast and were completely cornered.
“We have cleared 95 percent of the work (to defeat the Tigers),” Fonseka said, adding the island’s government — which abandoned a Norwegian-brokered truce a year ago — was now on the verge of winning one of Asia’s longest-running civil wars after a massive ground, sea and air campaign against the rebels.
“The end of terrorism is near and we will definitely win,” he said.
There has been no comment from the rebels, and there is no way of confirming any of the claims as independent journalists are barred from travelling to the conflict zone.
Aid agencies and human rights workers are also barred from areas where the Sri Lanka military is active.
The big question now is whether LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran — who has been leading a separatist war against Sri Lanka’s ethnic Sinhalese majority since 1972 — is even still on the island.
What is also unclear is whether the LTTE command structure is still intact, and whether the rebels’ can survive the loss of their mini-state and return to fighting a guerrilla war from hidden jungle bases.
The Sri Lankan government has said it had killed thousands of LTTE fighters over the past year, but casualty figures are also impossible to confirm.
Army chief Fonseka said last week that Prabhakaran, 54, may already have escaped by sea. Authorities in nearby India as well as Malaysia have said they were on the look out for the rebel leader.
The rebel chief is seen as having no safe havens overseas.
The Tamil Tigers were trained and armed by New Delhi in the early 1980s, but Prabhakaran is now wanted by India in connection with the 1991 murder of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The LTTE is also listed by the European Union and United States as a terrorist organisation — infamous for its use of male and female suicide bombers and child soldiers.
The other big question surrounds the fate of an estimated 150,000-250,000 ethnic Tamil civilians who are still trapped in the battle zone.
The rebels have accused government troops of firing indiscriminately at civilians, while the government says locals are being held hostage and used a “human shields.”
Tens of thousands of people have been killed since the conflict began.
But Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse said in a New Year’s address that 2009 would be the year of “heroic victory” over the Tigers and an end to the war.
The president has promised a political solution to the island’s long-running ethnic strife, but only once the rebels are totally defeated.