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Sri Lankan Troops 1.5 Kilometers From Rebel Stronghold

September 29, 1996

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Government soldiers captured a rebel stronghold in northern Sri Lanka, capping an eight-day battle that has left nearly 900 people dead, the military said Sunday.

Government troops were inside Kilinochchi town, 170 miles north of the capital, Colombo, and were clearing land mines and booby traps, said Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Sanath Munasinghe.

The battle for the town was a crucial test for the military as it tries to wrest control of northern jungle towns that have served as refuges for Tamil rebels during a 13-year civil war that has killed more than 46,000 people.

Government forces chased the guerrillas out of their urbanized stronghold, the Jaffna Peninsula, in December. Since then Kilinochchi had served as the rebels’ northern headquarter.

At least 35 rebels and 10 soldiers were killed in Saturday’s fighting, said Capt. Panduka Senanayake, a military spokesman. Until Saturday, according to the military, at least 625 rebels and 219 soldiers had been killed in the offensive launched last Sunday.

Most of Kilinochchi’s 125,000 civilians had moved out to safer areas in July when the military began an assault to take the town. The government troops had stopped short of the town, and on Sunday they began their final assault from Paranthan, 3 miles from Kilinochchi.

It was the worst fighting in Sri Lanka in the last two months. Most of the rebels were killed in their failed counteroffensive Thursday, which left 127 soldiers and 450 guerrillas dead, the military said.

The rebels are fighting for a homeland for minority Tamils, who account for 18 percent of Sri Lanka’s 17 million people. Sinhalese, who make up 75 percent of the population, form the country’s establishment.

The rebels discounted the military’s toll, saying on Sunday that only 38 of their own were killed in the counteroffensive. In a statement from their London office, the rebels said more than 150 government soldiers had been killed and 200 wounded in Thursday’s attack.

No independent confirmation of the claims was possible since the government doesn’t allow reporters in the war zone. Relief workers pulled out of the area three months ago.

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