COLOMBO, SRI LANKA // Sri Lanka's military seized a key crossroads in the north from the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels today after fierce clashes that killed at least 54 fighters, an official said. Capturing the strategic Paranthan junction after 10 years under rebel control is the latest in a series of battle successes for the government, which has vowed to defeat the insurgents this year to end their 25-year separatist campaign.
Government officials made the same prediction last year but faced stiff rebel resistance. Military spokesman Brig Udaya Nanayakkara said taking control of Paranthan after about six weeks of fighting will open a third front against the guerrillas' de facto capital of Kilinochchi, which is 4 kilometres to the south. It will also isolate a rebel stronghold at Elephant Pass to the north and allow soldiers to march into north-eastern rebel territory, he said. Kilinochchi has eluded the military for months despite top officials' claims of its imminent fall.
The military said in a statement today that infantry troops entered Paranthan yesterday with air force jet and helicopter support and fought close-range battles for a day to beat back rebel resistance. "Unable to withstand the fury of the combined army and air force onslaught, LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorists withdrew from the town in total disarray," the statement said. About 50 rebels and four soldiers were killed in the fighting, Mr Nanayakkara said. Soldiers also captured Iranamadu junction on the south of Kilinochchi today, Mr Nanayakkara added, calling it another boon for the troops fighting to capture the rebel stronghold. He did not give casualty details.
The latest government offensives have forced the rebels to abandon territory and retreat into an increasingly shrinking area in the north-east. Rebel officials could not be contacted for comment. The rebels have been fighting since 1983 to create an independent homeland for the minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalisation by successive governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. The conflict has killed more than 70,000 people.