Sri Lanka claims rebels defeated; fighting continues (Roundup)

May 17th, 2009 - 1:34 am ICT by IANS  

Colombo, May 16 (DPA) Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa Saturday declared that the Tamil rebels have been defeated militarily, although pockets of resistance continue to be reported in the country’s north-east.
“I am proud to announce that my government, with the total commitment or our armed forces, has in an unprecedented humanitarian operation, finally defeated the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam militarily,” Rajapaksa said.

He made the claim while addressing delegates at the Group of 11 nations summit in Jordan. The text of the statement has been made available in Colombo.

“I will be going back to a country that has been totally freed from the barbaric acts of the LTTE,” he said.

The comments came as state-run television and radio reported that a series of explosions had been heard, some of them in bunkers where the rebel leadership was hiding.

However, chief military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said he could not confirm immediately the report that the senior leadership had been killed.

Earlier he said that, according to available information from ground troops, senior LTTE members, including leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, remained in the rebel-held area.

Civilians continued to pour out of the last rebel-held area in north-eastern Sri Lanka on Saturday after security forces took the final strip of coast held by Tamil separatist rebels. The operation was the final phase of their offensive to defeat the guerrillas and end the more than 25-year conflict, military officials said.

An estimated 5,000 civilians left on Saturday, pushing up to 17,500 the total to have fled the area in two days.

Military officials said that the LTTE, which has now been driven back to an area of less than one square kilometre in the north-east, were still putting up resistance.

Security forces took the last rebel-held coastline by advancing from different directions along the coast and linking up at Kariyalamullaivaikkal village, 395 kilometres north-east of Colombo, the officials said.

Military officials involved in the operations said the final efforts to take full control of the LTTE-held area might take a couple of hours.

However, government sources said a final announcement of the rebels’ defeat was due to be made by Rajapaksa, who is due back in Sri Lanka Sunday morning.

Local police stations requested that the public hoist the national flag to mark the capture of the rebel-held area as the operations nears an end.

Meanwhile, civilians trapped in the war zone continued to flee by wading across a lagoon to enter government-controlled territory. Television pictures obtained by cameraman of the state run channels showed that civilians were ducking gunfire from rebels to escape into military-controlled areas.

Only state-run television journalists have been allowed into the area.

The government had earlier estimated that some 20,000 civilians were trapped in the area, but the latest reports indicate that the figure may be higher. Before Friday’s exodus, the United Nations had estimated 50,000 civilians remained on rebel-held land.

More than 180,000 civilians who have fled the rebel-held area since January are in government camps in the northern districts of Vavuniya and Jaffna. The government has pledged that they would be resettled in their villages as soon as possible.

The government and United Nations have charged the rebels with holding the civilians in the conflict zone as human shields, while the LTTE has accused Colombo of firing on the area without regard to civilian safety. UN officials have warned that the war zone was

becoming a “bloodbath” and “killing field.”

UN officials who spoke Friday with the German Press Agency dpa in Geneva on the condition of anonymity, gave “conservative” estimates that 7,000 to 8,000 people have been killed there since the end of January.

The LTTE and the government have blamed one another for the civilian deaths. Their claims could not be verified because the government has barred journalists and independent observers from the war zone.

The conflict, in which the LTTE has been fighting for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils, has killed more than 70,000 people.

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