Sri Lankan troops broke through a strategic front in the country’s civil war on Thursday, overrunning an important rebel defense line north of the Tamil Tiger‘s de facto state, the military said.
While government forces have pushed deep into rebel-held territory from the south in recent months, the rebels have managed to counter repeated strikes launched by the military from the northern Jaffna peninsula.
But on Thursday, after three days of heavy fighting, troops broke through and captured the rebels’ first line of defense at Muhamalai, advancing 800 yards, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said. The rebels still maintain two other defense lines.
As the fighting has intensified, international organizations have ramped up their warnings about the fate of hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians in the rebel-controlled area. Amnesty International said Wednesday tens of thousands of people are now without shelter.
Thursday’s victory was significant because it marked the first time during the recent fighting that government forces were able to pierce rebel fortifications in the area and because rebel troops fought ferociously to hold off the advancing troops.
“They had a lot of casualties and we are going toward the second line of defense,” Nanayakkara said. A Ministry of Defense statement said scores of rebels were killed in the fighting.
Rebel spokesmen could not be reached for comment because most communication lines with the north have been severed. But a rebel-affiliated Web site reported Wednesday that Tamil Tiger fighters killed 36 soldiers during the recent fighting along the defense line.
The Tamil Tigers have fought since 1983 to create an independent state for the country’s ethnic minority Tamils, who have suffered marginalization by ethnic Sinhalese-controlled governments. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.
In April, Tamil Tiger fighters killed scores of troops along the northern front when they feinted an attack on government positions, quickly retreated and then pounded the pursuing soldiers with artillery.
The capture of the Muhamalai defense line put further pressure on the rebels, who are defending dwindling territory while trying to fight off a multi-pronged offensive from the south, west and north.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Amnesty International accused the government — which expelled the United Nations and other international aid groups from rebel-held areas in September — of failing to provide proper shelter and protection to the displaced.
“Tens of thousands of families are now enduring the monsoon season with limited food, shelter, water or sanitation,” the London-based group said.
India on Thursday gave nearly 1,870 tons of emergency food aid and other relief to the Red Cross for distribution to the displaced families. The International Committee of the Red Cross was the only international organization allowed to remain in the rebel region.
Amnesty said not enough food aid was reaching the region and many families were living in makeshift shelters of ripped up rice sacks strung over bits of wood. The onset of the rainy season also brought an increased risk of a disease outbreak even as staff and supplies at health care clinics dwindled, the group said, calling on the government to restore aid agencies’ access to the area.
Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe dismissed the report as “absolutely incorrect,” saying six convoys of international food aid were sent to the area in recent weeks and that a U.N. assessment team was also allowed to enter.
Many of those displaced were staying in schools, but he said he expected more shelter materials would be brought to the area in the coming days.
Amnesty also accused the rebels of forcibly recruiting civilians and preventing many of the displaced from moving to safer areas.
(Associated Press )