Sri Lankan forces overran the Tamil Tigers’ northernmost defense line Tuesday, forcing the beleaguered rebels to retreat from one of their strongest fortifications, the military said.
The capture of Muhamalai on the Jaffna peninsula came as government troops pushed the rebels deeper into their shrinking heartland in the northern jungles in hopes of finally crushing the insurgency.
Troops seized the insurgents’ administrative capital of Kilinochchi last week, and the military said it was poised to capture the strategic base of Elephant Pass.
"Our forces are moving, and very confidently, and they are moving forward," defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said.
He said the government hopes to clear the entire north of rebels in the "coming weeks," effectively ending the 25-year-old civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people on this Indian Ocean island nation.
The rebels have been fighting to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization by governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority.
In recent years, the Tamil Tigers set up a de facto state in parts of northern Sri Lanka, squeezed between the government-held Jaffna peninsula — the northernmost point in the country — and the rest of the island to the south.
A recent government offensive from the south forced the rebels to abandon much of their territory, but troops in Jaffna had been unable to break through the insurgents’ heavily fortified northern lines at Muhamalai and open another front in the fight.
On Tuesday, government forces took full control of Muhamalai and forced the rebels to fall back about 600 yards (meters) to another defense line, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.
The rebels offered less resistance than usual in the area, he said.
"They are withdrawing step by step," he said.
The rebels were not available for immediate comment. It is not possible to get independent accounts of the fighting because journalists are largely barred from the war zone.
Meanwhile, troops sweeping across rebel territory from the south were closing in on the town of Elephant Pass on the edge of the isthmus leading to Jaffna, Nanayakkara said. Those troops had cut off the main route connecting the insurgents still fighting on the peninsula with the main rebel bases to the south, Nanayakkara said.
Only a tiny sliver of land along the east coast that was still under rebel control connected the two sections of rebel territory, he said.
In an interview with the rebel-affiliated TamilNet Web site, the insurgents’ political chief Balasingham Nadesan said the Tamil Tigers have been in difficult situations before but have always come back.
However, military analysts say the current situation is the most dire the rebels have faced.