Sri Lanka said Friday its troops had finally captured the unofficial capital of the Tamil Tigers and urged the rebels to lay down their arms and end their decades-old struggle for a separate homeland.
But just hours after President Mahinda Rajapakse announced the news, a suspected Tiger suicide bomber attacked Sri Lanka’s air force headquarters in Colombo, killing at least two airmen and injuring more than 30 others.
Rajapakse had earlier called the army’s capture of Kilinochchi an “unparalleled victory” for the entire nation.
“For the last time, I am telling the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) to lay down arms and surrender,” he said in a nationwide broadcast.
Street celebrations took place in the capital Colombo and elsewhere as news of the town’s capture broke.
There was no comment from the Tigers, for whom the loss of Kilinochchi — the political headquarters of their northern mini-state for the past 10 years — is a huge blow.
Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka vowed to go after the last remaining military base of the Tigers after his troops captured Kilinochchi.
“It won’t take a year to finish them off, to eliminate them,” Fonseka said, adding that taking Kilinochchi was the culmination of a major offensive that began in March 2007. Daily fighting escalated in the past nine months.
He said ground troops were heading to flush out the remaining pockets of the LTTE.
“The LTTE are now confined into a small area spanning 40 kilometers (25 miles) long and about 40 kilometers wide along the north eastern coastal district of Mullaittivu,” Fonseka said.
Military officials said Sri Lankan ground troops had punched through Tiger defences at two locations in the city and quickly taken full control of the area.
The brutal Sri Lankan conflict over the Tigers’ demand for a separate Tamil homeland has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1972.
President Rajapakse pulled out of a ceasefire deal last year and vowed to crush the Tigers once and for all.
Since then, the rebels have been on the defensive, losing strongholds in the east of the island last year and steadily retreating in the north.
Rajapakse had vowed Thursday in a New Year’s address that 2009 would see a final “heroic victory” over the rebels.
United Nations agencies and other international aid groups previously had offices in Kilinochchi, but pulled out late last year at the government’s request as fighting escalated in the region.
While losing Kilinochchi is a major setback, the Tigers have shown in the past that they have the ability to rebound from even the most dire situations.
Barely six months after government troops captured the northern Jaffna peninsula in 1995, the Tigers overran a military base in the northeastern district of Mullaittivu, killing more than 1,200 soldiers.
The guerrillas also reversed military gains of 19 months in a matter of five days in November 1999, going on to dislodge the military from their Elephant Pass base at the entrance to Jaffna.
The government spent 1.6 billion US dollars on the war effort last year and an estimated 1.7 billion dollars this year.
In his annual speech in November, LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran vowed to defend his territory and suggested that the rebels would revert to guerrilla-style, hit-and-run attacks as their area shrank.
“No sane voice is being raised either to abandon war or to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict,” Prabhakaran said.
Over the years, the Tamil Tigers have gained a reputation as one of the world’s most effective and ruthless guerrilla groups, using surprise and suicide bombers to maintain their struggle, despite being heavily outnumbered.
The Tigers have been labelled a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union and neighbouring India, but had the backing of the international community when Oslo-backed peace talks got under way in 2002.
Human rights groups have accused the Tigers of rampant extortion and criticised their recruitment of child fighters.