- civil war - Sri Lanka - Tamil Tigers
AFP - Sri Lanka said Sunday it had rescued all civilians held by the Tamil Tigers, as the island's president claimed victory over the separatist rebels who have fought the government for decades.
Thousands of non-combatants have been held hostage by the Tigers in a diminishing pocket of land on the northeast coast, though the exact number has been a matter of dispute between the United Nations and Sri Lankan officials.
"More than 50,000 people have come out of that area in the past three days and with that we have rescued all the civilians held as a human shield by the Tigers," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said on Sunday.
The government had previously maintained less than 20,000 civilians were being held hostage, while the United Nations said there could be 50,000 people trapped.
With the government announcing that all civilians had been moved to safety, the way appeared open for troops to move in and take control of the last patch of rebel-held jungle.
Sri Lankan military leaders say they have held back the final assault to avoid civilian deaths, though thousands are still thought to have been killed in months of heavy fighting.
About 70 of the remaining Tiger fighters were killed early Sunday as they tried to escape by boat from the jungle where the guerrillas are surrounded, Nanayakkara said.
They were shot as they crossed a lagoon in six boats, he said, adding that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, 54, was not among them.
President Mahinda Rajapakse, who announced in Jordan on Saturday that his forces had finally defeated the rebels, was greeted on his return home by supporters waving flags and setting off firecrackers.
"My government, with the total commitment of our armed forces, has in an unprecedented humanitarian operation finally defeated the LTTE militarily," Rajapakse said.
The president has faced fierce international criticism for civilian casualties caused by shelling, and for the detention in state-run camps of more than 100,000 Tamils who fled the fighting.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only neutral organisation working in the war zone, described the situation as "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe."
Despite pleas for a ceasefire, Sri Lanka has been determined to push for a clear victory against the rebels -- who only two years ago controlled as much as a third of the island and operated an effectively autonomous Tamil state.
"Their only way out is to surrender to the security forces or to be crushed," the defence ministry said.
The Tigers' loss of all their territory would be unlikely to bring peace to Sri Lanka, with Tamil fighters instead returning to the guerrilla hit-and-run tactics that they have used to devastating effect in the past.
The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, arrived here Saturday night for talks with President Rajapakse on the fate of civilians in the war zone.