Sri Lanka claims last rebel area taken

A Sri Lankan soldier guards a military checkpoint in the capital Colombo.
Sri Lankan government soldiers seized the last remaining coastal stretch under the control of Tamil Tiger rebels, the Ministry of Defense said Saturday, marking a possible end to a quarter-century-long fight in the island nation.

The seizure marks the total capture of coastline territory previously controlled by the rebels, the government said, after army divisions advanced from the north and south to link up. No formal declaration of victory is expected at least until the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa returns to the country from Amman, Jordan, where he is attending the World Economic Forum. On Friday, the Navy arrested the wife of Soosai, a leader of Sea Tigers — the ocean-going arm of the rebel group. His daughter and son-in-law were also arrested. Navy officials, quoting those who were arrested, said Tamil Tigers leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is believed to be inside the area of the latest fighting. Other sources have said he has escaped. The rebels — formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — have fought for an independent state for minority Tamils in Sri Lanka since 1983. As many as 70,000 people have been killed since the civil war began.

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In a rapid military push, Sri Lankan forces had squeezed Tamil Tiger fighters into approximately 1.5 square miles (four square kilometers) of coastal land. The United Nations estimates that more than 50,000 civilians are trapped there. Watch iReporter Thileepan’s footage of the “safe zone” ยป An Army source told CNN that about two square kilometers in the region remain to be captured and that military officials expect that to take a couple of days. “The government is moving forward in extremely difficult circumstances. After all, the … Tamil Tigers are seeded amidst the middle of all these civilians. It’s very difficult to weed out and identify who is a fighter and who is not,” said Gordon Weiss, a U.N. spokesman. “It makes it very very dangerous for civilians, and it explains the very large toll on civilian life that we’ve seen at this point.” Weiss called the fighting a “bloodbath” at the beginning of the week. Humanitarian aid groups have reported mass civilian casualties in the fighting. The situation had worsened by Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said. It suspended evacuation and medical rescue operations in the no-fire zone. Aid agencies had been stuck offshore, unable to deliver badly needed relief supplies and evacuate civilians. “Our staff are witnessing an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe,” said Pierre Krahenbuhl, the ICRC’s director of operations. “No humanitarian organization can help them in the current circumstances. People are left to their own devices.” The U.N. Security Council and U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday called for both sides to protect civilians and allow humanitarian aid into the conflict zone. In a statement at the White House, Obama urged Sri Lankan government troops to halt the “indiscriminate” shelling of civilians trapped with the remnants of the country’s Tamil Tigers. He also prodded the rebels to stop using civilians as human shields.

Security Council members issued a statement demanding “that all parties respect their obligations under international humanitarian law.” A Red Cross worker was killed Wednesday during shelling in the conflict zone in Sri Lanka — the third aid worker killed in six weeks — the Red Cross said.