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Sri Lanka nears victory in long war with Tamil Tigers

The Army has squeezed the rebels into a small patch of jungle since seizing their last major stronghold Sunday. But they could still mount a messy counterinsurgency.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 2009

Big news: Sri Lankan papers relay the Army's advances against the Tamil Tigers. The military has pushed rebels into a sliver of jungle after seizing their last main stronghold.

Eranga Jayawardena/ap

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Bangkok, Thailand

Sri Lanka has edged closer to its military goal of defeating the Tamil Tigers, a rebel movement whose violent struggle for an independent homeland has spanned 26 years and shaped a generation of political strife.

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Government troops said Sunday they had captured the town of Mullaittivu, driving the rebels from their last garrison and into a shrinking patch of jungle. Army chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka went on national television to declare that 95 percent of the war was over and that victory was imminent. "The end of terrorism is near and we will definitely win," he said.

The fall of Mullaittivu is another blow to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which has held the coastal town since 1996. Earlier this month, the military overran Kilinochchi, the LTTE's administrative capital, and seized a strategic road to Jaffna peninsula in the north.

General Fonseka said Sunday the retreating rebels were in a narrow strip of land measuring about nine miles by 12 miles (20 km by 15 km). Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped by the fighting.

The rapid retreat by one of Asia's longest-running and most ruthless insurgencies has fanned talk of a deliberate ceding of territory in preparation for a protracted guerrilla war. Military commanders have warned of this tactic, as well as of retaliatory terrorist attacks in Colombo, the capital. The LTTE has long used suicide bombers to strike at the heart of Sri Lanka's government.

But another possibility is that the rebels are flailing in the face of a Sri Lankan military that is better equipped and trained than in past battles. Their fighters may also be rudderless: The military has claimed that their commander, Velupillai Prabhakaran, could already have escaped by sea to Southeast Asia.

"The Tigers are putting up a lot less resistance than many expected at this stage of the battle," says Alan Keenan, a senior analyst in Colombo for the International Crisis Group.

Civilian casualties mounting

As the conflict continues, civilian casualties are mounting, to the alarm of UN officials who have urged both sides to minimize suffering to civilians.

Last Thursday, a hospital was shelled, killing at least 30 people. The attack was blamed on the military, which denied firing on the hospital. The pro-rebel Tamilnet website said several people died Sunday when government mortars landed near a UN-run aid warehouse.