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Page last updated at 12:34 GMT, Wednesday, 17 September 2008 13:34 UK

Sri Lanka's push to take rebel HQ

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Colombo

Sri Lankan soldiers
The army says it is on the verge of victory in the north

Kilinochchi town in northern Sri Lanka is an unimpressive looking place - a few kilometres of low buildings straggling along the main A9 road.

There are some shops and a market, and a couple of places to eat.

But Kilinochchi is symbolically important as the Tamil Tigers have made it their administrative headquarters.

Now Sri Lanka's military says its troops are just 5.5km (3.5 miles) from the town, and the United Nations pulled its last team of staff from the area on Tuesday.

The UN had been ordered along with other aid agencies to leave last week by the government, which said it could not guarantee their safety.

The battles had got so close humanitarian workers said from the town they could hear the small arms fire, and there was shelling nearby, both incoming and outgoing.

Stiff resistance

Kilinochchi is a major target of the government's offensive to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and end their fight for a separate state for the ethnic Tamil minority.

map

There has been talk of it being captured before the end of the year.

One cabinet minister told the BBC recently troops would take Kilinochchi "sooner even than people think".

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa was reluctant to give an exact timeframe, when he held a rare meeting with foreign journalists on Monday.

But, pressed, he did say: "We know they are getting weak."

He added the only option for the Tigers was to put down their weapons and surrender.

"There is a high degree of optimism, as if it's [as easy as] turning a page from a book," said Iqbal Athas, a defence columnist with Sri Lanka's Sunday Times.

"The battle is now for Kilinochchi but the LTTE will put up a fight before ceding it, if at all. In the past we've seen the Tigers play a defensive role, but lately they have gone on an offensive role. We are seeing very stiff resistance from the LTTE."

Foreign journalists were last allowed by the government a year ago to pass through the crossing point between the two warring parties and travel up to Kilinochchi.

Independent reporters are now barred from the conflict zone.

'Maximum damage'

The rebels' flag, a roaring Tiger on a red background, flies over Kilinochchi.

[Rebel] military power is concentrated east of Kilinochchi, right up to the coast of Mullaitivu
Defence columnist Iqbal Athas

Earlier, the centre of rebel power had been Jaffna, further north, but the military had forced them from the town in 1995.

Kilinochchi has courts, a police station and other administrative departments, all run by the LTTE, as well as statues and monuments.

One restaurant has walls inscribed with sayings of the "National Leader", rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Outside the town the rebels' dead lie under rows of identical grey gravestones in a huge cemetery with the silhouette of an upturned assault rifle worked into the metalwork of the gates.

And it was in Kilinochchi that the Tigers welcomed diplomats and other visitors during the ceasefire, putting them up in their Tank View Hotel, named for the dam, or tank it overlooks, rather than weapons of war.

So capturing the town would be a huge moment for Sri Lanka's government.

It would be a sign of how far soldiers have come since the now abandoned 2002 ceasefire broke down on the ground two years ago - first evicting the Tigers from the east, more recently rapidly advancing into rebel territory in the north.

Internally displaced Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils sit outside the UNHCR compound during a protest against the departure of aid agencies, in rebel-held town of Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka, Friday, Sept. 12, 2008.
The UN says the plight of civilians in the north is worsening

But the fall of Kilinochchi would be unlikely to be the end of Sri Lanka's civil war, which began a generation ago.

"Kilinochchi would no doubt be an achievement for the Government," said Iqbal Athas, the defence columnist.

"But we must remember it is not the centre of [the Tigers'] military power, it's the centre of political power… Military power is concentrated east of Kilinochchi, right up to the coast of Mullaitivu. So if they take Kilinochchi there's a long way to go thereafter."

And the military says it has other aims besides the town.

"It's not only Kilinochchi," said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara. "We have Mullaitivu on the east coast and Pooneryn on the west coast. [Our objective] is to cause maximum damage and destruction to their weapons systems."




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