Blast rocks Colombo as operation against rebels intensifies

A loud explosion has rocked a commercial area in Colombo. The blast comes as the military advanced on Mullaittivu, the Tamil Tiger rebels' military HQ. On Friday, the government seized the separatists' de facto political capital Kilinochhi.


AFP - Sri Lankan troops advanced Saturday on the military headquarters of the Tamil Tigers and engaged the rebels in fresh gunbattles, a day after capturing their de facto political capital.

The defence ministry said ground forces, backed by helicopter gunships and war planes, were moving towards Mullaittivu, the jungle district along the northeastern seaboard, where the Tigers have their main military facilities.

"The battle for Mullaitivu has already begun," the ministry said in a  statement.

The air force used Mi-24 helicopter gunships to carry out four bombing raids Saturday in support of the advancing troops while jet aircraft were also deployed to hit Tiger positions, a military spokesman said.

He added that 10 such missions were carried out on Friday.

In the capital Colombo, a bomb went off at a commercial area of the city on Saturday, wounding three civilians and damaging several vehicles, police said. A suicide bombing in Colombo on Friday killed two people and wounded 36.

Troops, who took the Tigers' northern stronghold of Kilinochchi on Friday, were fanning out to neighbouring areas and confronted small pockets of rebel resistance, a military official said.

"Several Tigers were killed and security forces also suffered injuries," the official said.

The pro-rebel Tamilnet website reported that a petrol station and a bus station were bombed by the air force on Friday morning, killing four civilians and wounding another eight.

The defence ministry said government troops were moving further north of their positions in Kilinochchi in a bid to retake the strategically vital Elephant Pass which was lost to the Tigers in April 2000.

Elephant Pass lies at the entrance to the Jaffna peninsula which security forces wrested from rebel control in 1995.

Military officials said the fall of Kilinochchi had cleared the way for security forces to re-establish control over a vital highway linking the northern Jaffna peninsula with the rest of the country.

Jaffna, which has a population of nearly half a million people and a considerable military presence, used to be supplied by air and sea because the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) controlled the land route.

President Mahinda Rajapakse called the army's capture of Kilinochchi an "unparalleled victory" for the entire nation and urged the rebels to lay down their arms and end their decades-old struggle for a separate homeland.

Street celebrations took place in the capital Colombo and elsewhere as news of the town's capture broke.

The Tigers admitted losing Kilinochchi but argued that the town had been abandoned rather than captured.

"The Sri Lanka army has entered a virtual ghost town as the whole civilian infrastructure as well as the centre of the LTTE had shifted further northeast," the Tigers said through the pro-rebel Tamilnet website.

While losing Kilinochchi is a major setback, the Tigers have shown in the past that they have the ability to rebound.

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