Rebel forces were retreating Wednesday from the town of Kilinochchi and the government expected to capture the Tamil Tiger‘s administrative capital imminently, a senior official said.
The fall of Kilinochchi would be devastating to the separatist group, which once controlled a large de facto state in northern Sri Lanka but has been forced into a rapid retreat in the face of a massive military offensive.
Though the town has little military importance — and the rebels would almost certainly fight on without it — it is seen as one of the most significant symbols of the rebels’ decades-long fight to create an independent state in the north and east of this Indian Ocean island nation.
The rebels used Kilinochchi as the center of their political, police and judicial branches as they assembled the trappings of a state following a 2002 cease-fire. The town played host to numerous meetings between guerrilla leaders and visiting foreign diplomats.
However, the 2002 truce effectively collapsed in new fighting three years ago and the government officially pull out of the pact in January.
Defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said Wednesday that government troops were on “the outskirts” of Kilinochchi after days of fierce fighting and the rebels’ appeared to have abandoned their defenses.
“They are in retreat, they are moving out,” said Rambukwella, who is also a government minister. “Their presence is not felt.”
When asked whether the town was expected to fall imminently, he said, “Yes.”
Other security officials said President Mahinda Rajapaksa would likely make any announcement over the capture of the town.
It was not possible to contact the rebels for comment because the government has severed most communication lines to the north and barred journalists from the war zone.
The military forced the rebels to abandon their strongholds in the east last July before launching an offensive against the Tamil Tigers‘ main power base in the jungles of the north.
Troops had steadily advanced northward in recent months but became bogged down in positions 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) from Kilinochchi for weeks as the arrival of seasonal monsoon rains flooded roads and fields and made troop movements far more difficult.
But the military said it would push forward despite the rains, and earlier this week the two sides pounded each other with artillery and mortar shells during three days of intense battles. The military said the fighting killed 122 rebels and 27 soldiers, though both sides have been accused of supplying false casualty figures.
The fight over Kilinochchi came as both sides waited for reclusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to make his annual address to the Tamil people Thursday evening. The speech marking Heroes’ Day, which honors rebels slain in the fighting, is expected to be broadcast from a hidden transmitter in the jungles of the north.
In light of the fighting and a history of rebel attacks in honor of Heroes’ Day, the already high security around Colombo was tightened in recent days, with police stopping cars and questioning occupants at a succession of checkpoints throughout the city.
The rebels have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils after decades of marginalization at the hands of successive governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 700,000 people have been killed in the violence.
The government has vowed to crush the rebels and end the war by the end of the year.