Sri Lankan military captures key rebel territory, Tigers vow to keep fighting
Mon September 4, 2006 08:50 EDT .
Associated Press Writer
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Sri Lankan soldiers backed by artillery and airpower seized control of a key rebel enclave in the east, the military said, claiming the first significant territorial change of hands since a cease-fire four years ago.
But the commander of the Tamil Tiger rebels in the east, S. Elilan, said the battle for the town of Sampur was still on. ``We are fighting them. This is our territory, we can't let it be invaded by the enemy,'' he declared.
Recent weeks of near-daily airstrikes and artillery duels between the Tamil rebels and the security forces already have shattered the truce, and the military's move against Sampur is a further escalation in a situation already verging on all-out war.
Ground troops entered Sampur on Monday and were clearing the area of land mines and explosives left by retreating rebels, said military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe.
``We are now fully in control of the area. There may be some resistance, but we are fully in this area,'' he said.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as the rebels are known, have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for the country's 3.2 million predominantly Hindu Tamils, who have endured decades of discrimination at the hands of Sri Lanka's 14 million Sinhalese, most of whom are Buddhist.
The conflict _ one of Asia's longest running _ is probably best known for the Tigers' use of suicide bombers, with about 65,000 people killed in fighting before the cease-fire.
While violence dropped sharply after the truce was signed, sporadic shootings and bombings have steadily grown over the past year into the full-scale fighting seen in the past six weeks.
Both sides still insist they are abiding by the truce. But rebels warned Monday that if a Nordic cease-fire monitoring mission in place since the cease-fire ruled the government offensive violated the truce, the Tigers would consider themselves back at war.
``If they say it's a full-scale war, then we don't have to be bound by the cease-fire agreement,'' said Elilan, the rebel commander in the east.
The military has been trying for more than a week to reclaim Sampur _ which lies across from the port of Trincomalee and a strategic naval base. The battle has cost the lives of at least 100 combatants and driven thousands from their homes.
The Tigers had been using Sampur to fire artillery and mortars at the base and port, which is the maritime lifeline for 43,000 troops stationed in a government stronghold in the north, the port of Jaffna.
It's believed the rebels aim in a war would be retaking Jaffna, which they claim as their ancestral capital and controlled until 1995. They currently control all the land routes to the city, and the government has long wanted to retake Sampur to secure Trincomalee's port.
The apparent retaking of Sampur is the first strategic territorial victory for the army since hawkish Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka was appointed commander in December, and the government was said to be celebrating its win.
``Our armed forces have captured Sampur,'' President Mahinda Rajapakse told a meeting of his ruling party on Monday, reportedly to thunderous applause.
But the Tigers still control wide swaths of the north and east, and analysts warned the military's push on Sampur could harden the insurgents' resolve and invite relation on the battlefield and in relatively peaceful parts of the island, like Colombo, where the rebels have repeatedly set off suicide and roadside bombs.
``In the past ... the (rebels) have hit back ferociously, like a Japanese bullet train, smashing through everything,'' said M.R. Narayan Swamy, a New Delhi-based observer, who has written extensively on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
``We'll have to wait and see what the LTTE do, but this should not be seen as the end,'' he said.
The open fighting in Sri Lanka began in late July over a rebel-controlled water supply near Trincomalee. It then spread to other parts of the east and north. There are no hard figures on the number deaths in the fighting, and estimates range from a few hundred to well over a thousand.
The battles and earlier violence has also forced at least 220,000 people from their homes, the United Nations estimates, adding to the more than 600,000 people already displaced by fighting before the cease-fire and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Most are now living in squalid refugee camps in the embattled north and east where food and medicine is running low and movement across rebel and government lines has been curtailed.
The fighting has also forced local and international aid agencies to scale back _ and, in some cases, completely cut _ tsunami rebuilding projects.
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Published: Mon Sep 4 10:28:10 EDT 2006