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Sri Lankan Army Presses Toward Last Rebel Stronghold


In Sri Lanka, the army is pressing toward the last Tamil Tiger stronghold, after taking control of the northern Jaffna Peninsula. Concerns are mounting for civilians trapped in the war zone as fighting intensifies in the island country, where the government has vowed to crush the rebels.

The Sri Lankan army says the capture of a narrow stretch of land called Chundikulam has put the complete Jaffna Peninsula in government hands.

Military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara says this strip of land links the Jaffna Peninsula with the mainland and is under army control after nearly a decade.

"Yesterday, after conducting operations, LTTE fled, leaving their equipment along with over 100 boats in that area. The troops have gone into area after about over 10 years, because this area has never liberated earlier," said Nanayakkara.

The Tamil-dominated northern Jaffna Peninsula has symbolic importance because it is regarded as the heart of the civil conflict, which has raged in the north for 25 years. The rebel struggle for an independent Tamil homeland was triggered by complaints of discrimination against the country's minority Tamil community.

The rebels have suffered huge reverses in the last two weeks, losing their political capital, Kilinochchi, and Elephant Pass, which links the Jaffna Peninsula to the mainland.

The military says it now pressing toward the last Tamil stronghold, (Mullaittivu) and says the rebels are now confined to a 600-square-kilometer area in the north.

As the battle in the north intensifies, hundreds of civilians are fleeing the war zone. The government says it is equipped to handle a likely mass exodus of refugees.

But human rights groups say they are concerned about the plight of civilians. The head of the National Peace Council in Colombo, Jehan Perera, says thousands of civilians are trapped between the two sides and face immense hardship. He says there are also fears that they will be used by the rebels as forced conscripts.

"It is inevitable that the civilians will get caught up in the crossfire, in collateral damage, in the bombing, in the artillery fighting. This is the main concern of civilians: their physical security. The other concern would be of being used by the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] as forced recruits to fight the battles that are to come," said Perera. "LTTE is forcibly recruiting from every family and more than one, that is the information we are receiving."

The army has barred aid groups from the war zone. The government says it is on the verge of total victory.

The rebels have suffered huge reverses in the last two weeks, losing their political capital, Kilinochchi, and Elephant Pass, which links the Jaffna Peninsula to the mainland.

The military says it now pressing toward the last Tamil stronghold, (Mullaittivu) and says the rebels are now confined to a 600-square-kilometer area in the north.

As the battle in the north intensifies, hundreds of civilians are fleeing the war zone. The government says it is equipped to handle a likely mass exodus of refugees.

But human rights groups say they are concerned about the plight of civilians. The head of the National Peace Council in Colombo, Jehan Perera, says thousands of civilians are trapped between the two sides and face immense hardship. He says there are also fears that they will be used by the rebels as forced conscripts.

"It is inevitable that the civilians will get caught up in the crossfire, in collateral damage, in the bombing, in the artillery fighting. This is the main concern of civilians: their physical security. The other concern would be of being used by the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] as forced recruits to fight the battles that are to come," added Perera. "LTTE is forcibly recruiting from every family and more than one, that is the information we are receiving."

The army has barred aid groups from the war zone. The government says it is on the verge of total victory.

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