Sri Lanka troops take rebel stronghold
5 minutes ago
COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lankan security forces captured the main rebel stronghold in the island's embattled eastern province after weeks of heavy fighting, the defence ministry said.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fled the town of Vakarai in the face of the military advance, the defence ministry said in a statement. It gave no details of casualties.
'Following an hour-long effort (Friday) the Sri Lanka army troops finally liberated the Vakarai town and hospital which was used as an artillery launching pad by the terrorists keeping civilians as human shields,' the statement said on Friday.
Ground troops were consolidating their defences in the Vakarai area, but the fate of civilians was not immediately clear.
The town originally had about 35,000 civilians, but an estimated 20,000 had fled fighting in the area in recent weeks and sought shelter in government-controlled areas of the Batticaloa district.
International aid agencies had earlier expressed fears for the safety of the 15,000 who were trapped in Vakarai and unable to reach safety.
United Nations and other charities had asked the Tigers to allow civilians to get out of the firing line and also urged the military not to target non-combatants.
Friday's defence ministry announcement on the capture of Vakarai came three weeks after Sri Lanka's army chief Sarath Fonseka said he planned to clear the island's multi-ethnic eastern region of Tiger guerrillas.
The coastal region of Vakarai was also a key transit point for the Tigers travelling from the island's north to the east. The rebels had also maintained their own police and civil administration in the area.
There was no immediate reaction from the Tigers to the military statement claiming to have taken Vakarai.
However, earlier in the day the LTTE accused the military of shelling the areas surrounding Vakarai hospital, wounding six civilians.
The International Committee of the Red Cross also expressed fears for the safety of the hospital amid renewed shelling and urged both the government and the Tigers to spare civilians and the hospital.
At least 3,800 people have died in the fighting in the last year despite a Norwegian-arranged truce in place since 2002.
More than 60,000 people have been killed in Sri Lanka's Tamil separatist conflict in the past 35 years.