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Sri Lanka troops 'enter rebel HQ'

Sri Lankan troops in Paranthan on 1/01/09
The military said it won a hard-fought battle north of Kilinochchi on Thursday

Sri Lanka's military says its soldiers have entered the Tamil Tiger rebels' de facto capital Kilinochchi in the north, for the first time in a decade.

Senior military officials said troops had fought their way to the main railway station and would have the town under control "within hours".

But pockets of rebel resistance are said to remain and the fighting is continuing.

The Tamil Tigers have not commented on the military's latest claims.

In a statement on Thursday night, the Tigers said a further five civilians had been killed in airstrikes.

The Sri Lankan army has been advancing towards Kilinochchi for months.

The BBC's Roland Buerk in Sri Lanka says the capture of the town would be a major blow to the Tamil Tigers, who have held it for a decade.

It is where the Tigers have established their administrative headquarters and assembled the trappings of the separate state they want for the ethnic Tamil minority.

Both sides have recently claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties on each other in the north of the island.

But there have been no independent reports from the frontlines and it is impossible to verify either account of casualties.

Gained control

"The troops have entered Kilinochchi from three directions and we believe within the next couple of hours troops will capture the entire [town]," government spokesman Lakshman Hulugalla said.

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said there were still "enemy pockets" of rebel fighters in the town, adding that "troops are trying to gain full control within the next few hours".

Troops outside Kilinochchi
The army has been fighting towards Kilinochchi for months

On Thursday, the military said it had seized the strategically important junction of Paranthan, a crossroads north of Kilinochchi, in a bitter fight that lasted for hours.

It said soldiers entered the small township in a concerted assault backed by fighter jets, helicopter gunships, artillery and mortar fire.

The Tamil Tigers launched a series of counter-attacks before withdrawing from a battle that left 50 rebel fighters dead, the military said.

Its claimed success at Paranthan had effectively cut the main supply line to several Tiger strongholds in the north of Sri Lanka, the statement went on.

The pro-Tamil website TamilNet reported the Sri Lankan army's occupation of Paranthan, saying the army had suffered heavy losses and hundreds of civilians had been forced to flee.

The head of the Tigers' political wing, B Nadesan, told the BBC recently they would be able to continue fighting even if they lost Kilinochchi.

The rebels would remain in possession of some territory to the east of the town down to Mullaitivu on the coast, although that too is under threat from government forces.

Correspondents say that while the government seems able to maintain the upper hand, heavy battles are likely still to lie ahead and there is concern about the fate of the large number of civilians in the Tiger-controlled north.

The rebels deny using them as human shields and reject allegations they are forcing people into their ranks to fight.

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