COLOMBO, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Sri Lankan soldiers pressured the Tamil Tigers' last stronghold on the Jaffna Peninsula on Wednesday, while the separatist rebels vowed to overcome the latest in a series of battlefield losses.
Soldiers began sandwiching the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on Tuesday from the north and south of the bottleneck linking the island to the peninsula, and skirmished on Wednesday, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
That 12-km (7-mile) by 6-km wide area, covered with bunkers, landmines and defences, is the only part of the traditionally Tamil land of Jaffna the rebels have controlled since the military seized the bulk of the peninsula in 1995.
On Tuesday, troops on the northern front seized a rebel defence line as soldiers began to advance from the south on Elephant Pass, the gateway to Jaffna and site where the army lost one of its key bases in a humiliating defeat in 2000.
Once that strip is cleared, the military is expected to then direct most of its forces toward Mullaittivu, the only major town still held by the rebels, and where analysts say the LTTE has been moving its fighters and heavy weapons for a final stand.
The northeastern port is across the jungle from Kilinochchi, the self-proclaimed rebel capital the Tigers lost on Friday, in a crushing blow.
LTTE political head B. Nadesan, in an interview published overnight on the pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com, said the Tigers had lost and reclaimed Kilinochchi before.
"The simple truth is that we have taken forward our struggle for more than 30 years, solely relying on the support of our people. We are certain that the continued support will enable us to overcome current and future challenges," TamilNet quoted him as saying.
The Tigers formed in the 1970s and began waging war in earnest in 1983, saying they were fighting for Sri Lankan Tamils against mistreatment by the majority Sinhalese, who dominated government since independence from Britain in 1948.
But their prolific use of suicide bombings and assassinations of political opponents including Tamil politicians not in their ranks has landed them on U.S, E.U. and Indian terrorism lists.
In the roughly 40 square km wedge of jungle still held by the Tigers are what aid agencies say are up to 230,000 Tamil civilians displaced by the war, forced to live in crude shelter if they have any at all.
Rights groups say the Tigers won't let them leave and forcibly conscript many to fight and build defences, while those that escape fear life in military-guarded refugee camps where they are viewed as potential Tiger sympathisers.
The LTTE rejects those allegations, Nadesan told TamilNet.
U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander and Foreign Minister Mark Malloch-Brown late on Tuesday said Kilinochchi's fall had made more urgent the need to set out a political deal to address the underlying issues of the war.
"We remain concerned about the humanitarian impact of the conflict and call on all parties to abide by their obligations," their joint statement said.
(Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal and the London Bureau; Editing by Sugita Katyal)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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