(AFP) – Sep 2, 2008
COLOMBO (AFP) — Sri Lanka's government said Tuesday it had dealt a major blow to Tamil rebels by capturing the key northern town and guerrilla bastion of Mallavi after heavy fighting that left dozens dead.
Security forces marched into the town on Monday evening and on Tuesday morning were "hunting for remaining Tigers," the island's defence ministry said.
"Domination of the well-known Mallavi town... marked one more decisive and impressive phase of the 'war for peace,'" the ministry said, referring to its drive to take the Tigers' nearby political capital of Kilinochchi.
The ministry said 33 rebels and four of its own troops were killed in fighting across the north of the island. It said 49 guerrillas and 11 soldiers were also wounded in the fighting on Monday.
The capture of Mallavi, where the Tigers had medical facilities, would be a psychological blow to the guerrillas as it is regarded as the birthplace of Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran's wife, defence officials said.
"Hundreds of valiant soldiers under the able military leadership are now stepping further towards adjoining boundaries of Mallavi town to capture remaining vulnerable areas located in Mallavi," the defence ministry said.
The latest casualty figures raised the number of rebels reported killed by troops since January to 6,238. The military admits losing 589 of its soldiers during the same period.
The Sri Lanka government pulled out of a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire with the rebels in January, and are engaged in a massive offensive aimed at dismantling the rebels' northern mini-state.
The defence ministry said security forces raised the national flag at Mallavi to the "thundering applause" of troops. It also released pictures of the local hospital and other town landmarks now under military control.
There was no immediate word from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but the pro-rebel Tamilnet.com website said the rebels had offered stiff resistance on another front along the northwestern sea board.
The site said "heavy fighting was also reported near Mallavi," but gave no further details.
According to Sri Lankan officials, government forces are now just 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) outside Kilinochchi, the Tigers' main administrative base, which is 330 kilometres north of the capital Colombo.
The Tigers have tacitly admitted losing ground -- but in the past they have surrendered territory only to strike back in devastating counter-attacks.
The town of Kilinochchi has been in government hands during previous episodes of the long-running conflict, and was most recently taken back by the LTTE in 1999 when they reversed months of hard-fought government gains in the space of several days.
Military commanders have said they are adopting better tactics and moving in smaller groups to prevent a repeat of the 1999 debacle.
The LTTE is seeking a homeland for minority Tamils from the majority Sinhalese community in the island's north and east. Tens of thousands have died on both sides in over three decades of bloodshed.
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