The capture was met with a swift response from the separatist group, as a suspected suicide bomber riding a motorcycle struck near the headquarters of the Sri Lankan Air Force during rush hour in the country’s capital city of Colombo, killing two airmen, police spokesman Ranjith Gunasekara told news agencies.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, have been fighting for a homeland in the north and the east independent of the majority Sinhalese government for 25 years. The capture of Kilinochchi is the biggest blow to their cause in years and reduces their operations to territory in Mullaitivu, a port town in the east.
With Kilinochchi captured, Sri Lankan troops are now heading to Mullaitivu as they try to push the Tigers toward the ocean.
“We are confident that we can see the end of them within this year,” said Sri Lankan Army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka “We don’t need even a year to see their end.”
Tamil Tiger political leader Balasingham Nadesan said the group would continue fighting even after losing their territory in the north, according to the Associated Press.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in battles between the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan government forces over the years. As fighting has increased in Tamil-held areas in recent months, more and more civilians have been displaced from their homes and a rise in abductions and disappearances along with the war effort has fueled criticism of the Sri Lankan government, the New York Times reported.
The rebuttal attack in Colombo wounded some 30 other people, including nine Air Force staffers, according to military and hospital officials. Sri Lankan officials said that the Tamil Tigers have used suicide bombings in the past in response to government pressure on rebel territories in the north.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced the taking of the town in a nationally televised address.
“It was the constant dream of all Sri Lankans, whether Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, who are opposed to separatism, racism, and terrorism, and have always, sought peace, freedom and democracy. Today our heroic troops have made that dream a reality,” he said.
“For the last time, I call upon the LTTE to lay down their arms and surrender,” he said, according to the AP.
The president’s announcement was met with celebrations in Colombo as people lit firecrackers, danced in the streets and waved Sri Lankan flags, according to wire reports.
Kilinochchi was captured by government troops in 1996 but the Tamil Tigers retook control of the town in 1998. Since then, the group has used it as a central hub to set up an independent state with a police force, courts and tax offices.
The city’s capture is a key prize for the government in their fight against the Tamil Tigers, military spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told Voice of America.
“Their complete administration and infrastructure will be dismantled to great extent,” Rambukwella said. “Which means it is a huge setback and there will be very little left for them to activate their terror activities.”
Sri Lanka’s military began closing in on Kilinochchi in September and began targeting the group’s defenses around the city in the December. The Tigers had built defenses, including a moat, around Kilinochchi and were helped by monsoon rains that made it difficult for Sri Lankan forces to advance.
By the time government groups entered the city, they met very little resistance, a sign that the rebels probably withdrew to their jungle bases, according to a military spokesman quoted by the AP.
Tamil Tiger representatives did not make a comment about the capture, but a news post on a pro-rebel Web site said the group had moved.
“The Sri Lanka Army has entered a virtual ghost town as the whole civilian infrastructure as well as the centre of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam had shifted further northeast,” according to a story dated for Thursday.
Attempts to come to a substantial truce have failed. A year ago President Rajapaksa’s government ended a fragile truce agreement brokered by Norway saying the Tamil Tigers were using the agreement to regroup and re-arm.