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    Sri Lanka Claims 'Sea Tigers' Neutralized, Total Victory Imminent

    The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - the rebel force fighting for independence on the island nation of Sri Lanka - appears on the verge of a total military defeat. Government troops claim the surrounded LTTE leadership has only a matter of hours to surrender or face destruction.

    Sri Lanka's military says all routes of escape for the rebels have been cut.

    Most significantly is the apparent defeat of the guerrilla movement's ability to get personnel and weapons onto and off shore.

    Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara tells VOA News two Army divisions moving from opposite directions have joined together, trapping the Tamil Tigers on a narrow and short patch of coastline.

    "With the troops moving and linking up we have completely confined the LTTE Sea Tigers onto ground. So that's a significant victory. With that we have confined LTTE to less than a two-square-kilometer area and surrounded them on ground from all directions," he said. 

    The military says despite inevitable defeat, the rebels are continuing to pose a lethal threat to the troops. Army Brigadier Nanayakkara says large vehicles loaded with explosives and targeted at soldiers are among the suicide tactics still being used. 

    "LTTE will use all their lethal equipment against the Army troops coming towards them. Army is prepared to face any threat from the LTTE. We'll see the total area being liberated very soon," he said.

    Defense officials say based on statements given by captured relatives of high-ranking LTTE officials they are confident that the group's founder and leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is now trapped and has not escaped the combat zone.

    The Tamil Tigers have fought a civil war for a quarter century in hopes of establishing an independent ethnic homeland on the Sinhalese-dominated island. 

    Most of Sri Lanka's Tamils are Hindus with a significant number of Christians. The Sinhalese are primarily Buddhists. 

    The international community is expressing grave concern for Tamils still trapped by the fighting. The government says 15,000, held as human shields by the rebels, have been rescued in the past several days. Humanitarian groups say tens of thousands of civilians remain in the combat zone - and many hundreds have died from shelling.

    The military says nearly all of the civilians have been liberated and the rebels are responsible for any Tamil casualties.

    The International Red Cross, the only aid group which had access to the combat zone, says it has not been able to carry out evacuations or provide desperately needed food and medicine for days due to lack of security.


    Steve Herman

    Steve Herman is VOA's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, based at the State Department.

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