Troops savour victory over retreating Tigers
Sri Lankan soldiers yesterday sipped sweet tea, smoked and chatted after digging foxholes in the town of Mullaittivu, the rebel stronghold that they overran after months of fighting.
Tamil Tiger rebels controlled the battle-scarred town for 12 years until Sunday night, when they were surprised by an attack from troops who arrived by stealth after crossing a murky lagoon by boat.
Military authorities took journalists to the scene of the victory to show off their latest battlefield advances, which have brought the separatist fighters to the brink of defeat.
Heavy artillery firing could be heard booming near the town but the war-hardened soldiers appeared relaxed as they dug in.
"The firing is about two to three kilometres away from where we are," one soldier said matter-of-factly. "Beyond a causeway just north of here is the new Tiger position."
The commander in charge of the battle of Mullaittivu, Brigadier Nandana Udawatte, told reporters the rebels had built three layers of defensive rings around the town, which sits between the Indian Ocean and the lagoon.
"They were resisting our frontal assault. While keeping up pressure from the south, we used boats to cross the lagoon and launch a surprise attack," Udawatte said.
He added a Tiger field commander known as Swarnam had been leading the fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) until Sunday, when their resistance here finally crumbled.
The government soldiers were camping on the same spot where the army had its garrison before the rebels attacked and threw them out in 1996 with the loss of 1,200 troops.
Since then, the Tigers have had a free run along the northeastern coast, allowing them to smuggle in weapons and ammunition to bolster their decades-long rebellion.
"We are moving to secure the coastal stretch and deprive them the use of the sea," Udawatte told reporters as heavy artillery fire exploded in the background.
Reporters, driven in armoured personnel carriers, were shown large earth fortifications and deep trenches build by the guerrillas to slow down the apparently unrelenting military advance.
With concern mounting about civilian casualties, most residents appeared to have fled the badly damaged town, where virtually every building has been damaged by bombs, artillery and gunfire, with many reduced to rumble.
Soldiers rested in the few structures that had not been burnt out, while the rebels appeared to have taken most of the tin roofs as they abandoned the town and retreated hastily to their jungle lairs.
The defence ministry rarely allows journalists into the conflict area and Tuesday's guided tour followed a similar visit earlier this month to the Tigers' fallen political capital Kilinochchi.