Sri Lankan troops on Monday captured three more strategic towns from Tamil Tiger rebels following fierce fighting in the north of the island, the army chief said.
The latest advances capped three days of psychologically-important gains for government troops, who have been battling the rebels for more than 35 years and who last controlled some of the territory captured Monday a decade ago.
Security forces entered the town of Mankulam, about 30 kilometres (20 miles) south of the de facto Tamil Tiger political capital of Kilinochchi, after intense battles with the rebels, army Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka said.
“We have taken complete control over Mankulam after three days of heavy fighting,” Fonseka said on state television. “We have inflicted heavy losses on the terrorists.”
He did not say if there were casualties among security forces.
Fonseka noted that security forces had lost control over Mankulam a decade ago in the face of rebel attacks.
Following the recapture of Mankulam, troops also took the nearby town of Pannikankulam, along the main highway that runs through the rebel political capital of Kilinochchi further to the north.
Government troops battling to dismantle the rebels’ mini-state also seized Kumalamunai, a town just south of the key Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) base of Mullaittivu, situated on the northeast coast.
“This morning we also captured Kumalamunai in Mullaittivu district,” defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told AFP.
Helicopter gunships were deployed to attack suspected Tamil Tiger targets and to support ground troops advancing on the guerrillas along a broad front in the north, the defence ministry said.
It said troops had also cut off a stretch of the Mankulam-Oddusudan road that leads to the main military bases of the Tamil Tigers along the northeastern coast of Mullaittivu district.
The Sri Lankan military said on Saturday it had taken another key town, Pooneryn, on the northern edge of the mainland.
“Mankulam is psychologically a very important place for us to re-establish because nine years ago the army lost it. The same with Pooneryn,” said Rambukwella, who is also a cabinet minister.
The minister did not give casualty figures, but added that a multi-pronged offensive to take Kilinochchi, the political headquarters of the Tigers, was under way.
The LTTE, meanwhile, said they had beaten back an offensive against their frontlines at Muhamalai on the Jaffna peninsula in the far north of the island.
“Twenty Sri Lanka army soldiers were killed and at least 80 wounded in the fighting,” the pro-rebel Tamilnet.com website reported, without giving rebel casualties.
Sri Lankan authorities have restricted access to the embattled areas for journalists as well as for most aid workers, making claims by the two sides impossible to independently verify.
The Sri Lankan government pulled out of a Norwegian-brokered truce with the LTTE in January.
UN and other aid organisations estimate that about 230,000 civilians are still living in rebel-held territory in the north where fighting is concentrated.
Neighbouring India, which expressed concern for the safety of ethnic Tamils trapped inside the war zone, announced Monday that it had sent a shipment of 1,680 tonnes of food and medicines.
Some 60 million Tamils in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu share close cultural and religious links with Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority.
Tens of thousands have died in Sri Lanka since the LTTE launched an armed struggle in 1972 to carve out a homeland for minority Tamils in the majority-Sinhalese nation.