Sri Lanka to celebrate victory over Tamil rebels

After Sri Lankan troops seized the last Tamil Tiger rebel base in the volatile east and the Government got control of the region for the first time in 13 years it was decided to celebrate the victory.

"There will be a big event in Colombo in keeping with the success of the armed forces in Thoppigala," presidential spokesman Lucien Rajakarunanayake said of the celebrations, scheduled for July 19.

The Tigers, however, warned Sri Lanka's military that the fight was far from finished despite the announcement Wednesday that the Thoppigala base had been captured.

"If they are coming into our territory, they will find stiff resistance from our people," said Rasiah Ilanthirayan, the rebels' military spokesman. "We will deploy the necessary tactics and the necessary tools to protect our people from the opposing force."

Military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe told reporters Thursday that the captured Thoppigala area is strewn with land mines and booby traps and that soldiers are still engaged in clearing those.

Ilanthirayan on Wednesday accused the government of carrying out an air raid on a rebel-held northern village, killing two civilians and wounding 11 others. However Group Capt. Ajantha Silva, an air force spokesman, said the target was a rebel sea base and denied attacking civilians.

"We had identified it and we are sure about the target," he said.

The fall of the eastern province dealt a significant blow to the Tamil dream of establishing an independent homeland in the nation's north and east.

The military offensive to retake the east began last year as tensions increased across the country. In January, troops routed the rebels from their eastern coastal strongholds of Vaharai and Kathiraveli villages in Batticaloa district.

Norway brokered a cease-fire between the two sides in 2002, but violence has flared over the past 20 months, with assassinations, airstrikes and steady fighting killing more than 5,000 people. However, neither side has been willing to declare the cease-fire dead.

Former Air Marshall Harry Goonetilleke said the seizure of Thoppigala was an important success for the military, but keeping it wouldn't be easy. "You can win a battle with 2,000 troops, but to hold it you need 10,000 minimum," he said.

The rebels have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's ethnic minority Tamils, who suffered decades of discrimination by majority Sinhalese-controlled governments. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.