- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka | Government forces captured the Tamil Tigers‘ de facto capital in northern Sri Lanka on Friday, dealing a devastating blow to the rebels’ quarter-century fight for an independent state, the president said.

But in a sign the rebels retained their ability to strike back, a suspected Tamil Tiger suicide attacker on a motorcycle detonated a bomb near the air force headquarters in the heart of the capital during Friday’s afternoon rush hour, killing three airmen and injuring 37 other people, authorities said.

The civil war between the two sides has killed at least 70,000 people and plagued the Indian Ocean island nation off and on for 25 years. A 2002 cease-fire collapsed in new fighting three years ago, and government forces have pushed deep into the rebels’ heartland in the jungles of the north in recent months.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has vowed to destroy the rebels, formally called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), announced the fall of Kilinochchi in a nationally televised speech.

“Our brave and heroic troops have fully captured Kilinochchi, which was considered the main bastion of the LTTE,” he said, as Cabinet ministers erupted in applause. “For the last time, I call upon the LTTE to lay down their arms and surrender.”

Celebrations erupted across Colombo, where people flooded the streets, dancing, waving Sri Lankan flags and setting off firecrackers.

The Tamil Tigers have been blamed for scores of bombings and suicide attacks and are listed as a terror group by the United States and European Union.

The fall of Kilinochchi was a devastating blow to the rebels’ dream of establishing a state for Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil minority in the northeast after decades of marginalization by governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority.

Over the past decade, the Tamil Tigers have used the town as their political and military headquarters and created the trappings of an independent nation.

The fall of Kilinochchi was the Tamil Tigers’ most difficult defeat since 1995, when the government captured the city of Jaffna, the emotional center of Tamil life in Sri Lanka.

Foreign mediators have called for a political solution to the fighting, saying that warfare will not resolve the underlying tensions between the Tamil minority, which makes up 18 percent of the population, and the Sinhalese majority that accounts for 74 percent of the country.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid described the Tigers as “one of the most notorious and brutal terrorist organizations” but called for a peaceful dialogue to resolve the legitimate concerns of Tamils.

Tamils have long complained they are treated as second-class citizens, with Sinhalese used as the nation’s de facto official language and members of the dominant group traditionally favored for government jobs.

Though Mr. Rajapaksa has said he would pursue a political solution, he also pressed ahead with the fight against the rebels. The military forced them out of their eastern strongholds and much of the territory they once held in the north, boxing them into about 620 square miles of jungle in the northeast, said army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

Troops entered Kilinochchi on Friday morning, and army commanders said their forces met only minimal resistance once inside, an apparent sign the rebels had retreated to their northeastern jungle bases to fight another day, analysts said.

The rebel-affiliated TamilNet Web site said the Tamil Tigers had moved their headquarters further to the northeast before the town fell.

Gen. Fonseka said troops were now focused on pushing into the rebels’ last major stronghold of Mullaittivu and estimated that only 1,700 to 1,900 rebels remained.

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