- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka | Sri Lanka’s president said his country has defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels on the battlefield and emerged victorious from its quarter-century civil war as troops seized control of the island’s entire coastline Saturday for the first time in decades.

Fighting continued to rage in the war zone along the northeast coast and huge explosions could be heard across the battlefield as rebels detonated their ammunition stocks and artillery dumps, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had been vanquished.

“My government, with the total commitment of our armed forces, has in an unprecedented humanitarian operation finally defeated the LTTE militarily,” Mr. Rajapaksa said.

“I will be going back to a country that has been totally freed from the barbaric acts of the LTTE,” he said in a speech at an international gathering in Jordan that was distributed to the media in Sri Lanka.

On Saturday morning, soldiers took control of the coastline, sealing the Tamil Tigers in a tiny pocket of territory and cutting off the possibility of a sea escape by the rebels’ top leaders, the military said.

Two senior rebel fighters known only by their noms de guerre, Sornam and Sasi Master, were killed in Saturday’s fighting, Brig. Nanayakkara said.

The rebels, who once ran a de facto state across the north, had controlled a formidable navy and sea smuggling operation.

Thousands of civilians fled intense shelling in the 1.2-square mile patch of land still under rebel control. Nearly 25,000 civilians have fled since Thursday, Brig. Nanayakkara said.

Government forces have been hunting for the reclusive Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran and his top deputies for months, but it was not clear if they remained in rebel territory or had already fled overseas.

On the verge of a battlefield defeat, the rebels reiterated their calls for the government to cease its offensive and restart talks to resolve the long-standing ethnic conflict between the minority Tamils and the Sinhalese majority.

Selvarasa Pathmanathan, in charge of the rebels’ international relations department, said the group welcomed President Obama’s call Wednesday for a peaceful end to the conflict and would do “anything that is necessary” to spare the civilians. However, he did not specifically say whether the rebels would accede to Mr. Obama’s request to lay down their arms and surrender.

Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government has barred most journalists and aid workers from the conflict zone.

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by the Sinhalese majority. The group, responsible for hundreds of suicide attacks, has been branded a terror organization by the U.S., European Union and India.

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