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Key loss will test Tamil Tigers

Sri Lankan troops near Kilinochchi on 12 December
Troops raised the flag in nearby Terumarikandi as they closed in on Kilinochchi

By Ethirajan Anbarasan
BBC News, Colombo

The Sri Lankan army's capture of the northern town of Kilinochchi marks a new phase in the fighting between the security forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels.

With its fall the rebels have now lost the biggest township they had under their control for more than a decade.

For the security forces, it will enable them to consolidate their domination of the key A9 highway, which links the Jaffna peninsula with the rest of the country.

The Tamil Tigers until recently had their administrative headquarters in the town. They proudly showcased offices of their political, police and judicial divisions to visiting foreign dignitaries and media. In fact, it acted like their de-facto capital.

It also helped the rebels to convince their supporters inside the country and the Tamil diaspora that they were running a parallel administration, a de-facto state in northern Sri Lanka.

"So, politically, the capture of Kilinochchi is highly symbolic for the Sri Lankan government," says Sri Lankan analyst DBS Jeyaraj.

He says now the government can gain political mileage by telling the majority Sinhala community in the south that it has dealt a severe blow to the Tamil Tigers and their claims for a separate Tamil homeland.

Land route

The Sri Lankan army lost Kilinochchi after a daring assault by the rebels about 10 years ago. The capture of the town helped the rebels to press ahead with their offensive up to the Jaffna peninsula.

The town was thrown into the international spotlight as the regular meeting place for the rebels and Norwegian peace facilitators and foreign envoys following the 2002 ceasefire agreement.

International donors also helped to rebuild some of the public buildings destroyed by years of intense fighting.

Tamil Tigers near Kilinochchi
The Tamil Tigers put up stiff resistance around Kilinochchi

New shops opened, produce from surrounding areas started coming to the local market and the reopening of the A9 highway linked the town with the rest of the country.

International aid agencies used Kilinochchi as their main base to carry out work for the internally displaced people living in the Wanni region. Thousands of expatriate Tamils who visited Kilinochchi used to wax eloquently about the town.

"Militarily, Kilinochchi has no major significance but it will help the army to bring a major part of the A9 highway under their control," says Mr Jeyaraj.

With the A9 highway closed the government at the moment sends supplies to nearly 40,000 troops and civilians in the Jaffna peninsula by sea and air.

Now the troops can do what the rebels did to them 10 years ago. Once they consolidate their positions in and around the town, they can set their sights on Elephant Pass, the strategic land bridge leading to the Jaffna peninsula.

Velupillai Prabhakaran
The Tigers' leader Velupillai Prabhakaran vows the fight will go on

If they are successful in their offensive to capture Elephant Pass, then the rebels will be forced to withdraw from their crucial defence lines further up the peninsula.

The entire A9 highway would possibly come under army control and the government.

But as the government rejoices over the capture of Kilinochchi, its residents are wary. They say the town has seen nothing but war and destruction in the past two decades.

"It has changed hands many times in the past. As civilians we have to bear the brunt of the fighting. We just want peace," a Tamil woman from Kilinochchi, now living in Colombo, said.

Without Kilinochchi, the guerrillas will be forced to operate from other smaller towns in the northern region that are still under their control.

But the army is also making an eastward move from the town of Mankulam, south of Kilinochchi, in an effort to confine the rebels mostly within Mullaitivu district.

Nevertheless, the capture of Kilinochchi is not the end of the Tamil Tiger movement. The rebels have shown their resilience in the past and with most of their heavy weapons and cadres intact, they may spring a surprise.

Even if the rebels lose control of other smaller towns and villages in the remaining areas, they may revert back to guerrilla warfare.

In his annual Heroes Day speech this November, the Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran vowed to fight on until the security forces were evicted from the Tamil areas.

"Whatever challenges confront us, whatever contingencies we encounter, whatever forces stand in our path, we will still continue with our struggle for the freedom of the Tamil people," he said.

It is too early to talk about the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka.

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