Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Monday, 5 January 2009

Ruined remains of rebel 'capital'

Soldier in Kilinochchi
Barely a building remains with a roof in captured Kilinochchi

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Kilinochchi

Attack helicopters flew overhead, tanks spluttering black smoke squealed and rattled through town on tracks rusty from the last monsoon, and soldiers with bandoliers of bullets slung around their necks posed for photographs in front of Tamil Tiger war memorials.

Two days after the fall of Kilinochchi, the town that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had used as their de facto capital was firmly under military control.

Almost all journalists have been refused access to much of northern Sri Lanka for a year and a half.

But the government was keen to show off its greatest prize so far in this phase of the war, so reporters were crammed into an Mi-17 transport helicopter for a ride to the front.

It was so full some had to stand.

The pilots flew very low and very fast, at treetop height over jungles recently captured from the Tigers, a precaution against being shot down.

Sri Lankan soldiers in Kilinochchi
Sri Lankan troops are securing the roads around the town

Wild peacocks on the ground below staggered to get away in the down force as we rushed overhead.

The helicopter landed south of Kilinochchi and we drove into the town in armoured personnel carriers, up the main A9, dubbed the Highway of Death in Sri Lanka because so many have been killed fighting for its control.

At one place soldiers were waving metal detectors over the middle of the road, probing for mines.

In Kilinochchi there was hardly a building with a roof. Shops were in ruins or pockmarked with bullets, a huge water tower was lying on its side.

Trappings of state

On the western side of town, the bodies of rebels who died fighting for independence for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority still lay in a huge cemetery, under long rows of identical grey cement tombstones. The ornate gates, which used to feature ironwork of upturned AK-47s, had been destroyed.

It's the capital of the LTTE... We have captured their prestige
Maj Gen Jagath Dias

The Peace Secretariat, where the Tigers met visiting diplomats and journalists during the failed 2002 ceasefire, was a shell. The windows and furniture had gone, the paving stones in the car park had been torn up.

A commando armed with rocket-propelled grenades guarded the gate. Nobody is talking peace now.

Kilinochchi was a potent symbol of the Tigers' separatist aspirations.

There they had established the trappings of the state for the Tamil minority for which they have fought for a generation.

They had law courts there, administrative offices, a tax system, even their own bank.

All that has now been smashed and abandoned.

Tamil Tiger fighters. Undated
The Tamil Tigers have headed east to the jungles and Mullaitivu

"It's the capital of the LTTE," said Maj Gen Jagath Dias, who led the 57th Division of the Sri Lankan army into the town. "We have captured their prestige. It's a very important milestone, it's a great achievement."

But the military has taken a town virtually devoid of people. Apart from soldiers the only signs of life on the streets were stray dogs.

The vast majority of the remaining population left with the Tigers towards the east, the jungles and Mullaitivu.

The government says they have been forced to go with the rebels as human shields.

The Tigers say they have gone of their own accord because they support their aims.

About 20 people who were in Kilinochchi had been gathered in a waiting room at the otherwise empty town hospital.

There, while a large number of soldiers and officers looked on, they told us they were happy to see the back of the Tigers.

One 14-year-old girl said the rebels had forced her to fight.

The Tigers' former headquarters town will now be used as a staging post for the next phase of the offensive against them.

Already government forces are advancing beyond Kilinochchi, and the sound of artillery fire thumped steadily over the jungles and fallow paddy fields.

Special forces troops bedecked with weaponry could be seen readying for the battle.

The remaining strategic targets for Sri Lanka's military include Elephant's Pass to the north on the narrow isthmus that leads up to Jaffna, and Mullaitivu, the last remaining town under Tiger control, which is on the north-east coast.

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