Lanka readies for final assault

COLOMBO: Sri Lankan government troops have tightened their siege of the last strip of land on the island still controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels and are poised for a final assault, the military said on Friday.

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told AFP that two columns of troops had consolidated positions along a strip of coastline in the northeast captured from the ethnic rebels earlier this week.

“The Tigers have no land escape routes left. We have troops in place to move in at anytime,” another top military official said. “If not for the civilians still trapped inside, we would have gone in by now.” Nanayakkara refused to say when the final assault would take place, asserting that troops “have to consider the civilians” still trapped in the territory held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Officials said sporadic fighting was continuing, with the navy also fighting an offshore battle with LTTE rebels trying to flee by boat. Navy spokesman Mahesh Karunaratne said three rebel craft were sunk and 23 rebels killed.

There was no comment from the Tigers, but the pro-rebel Tamilnet website said the guerrillas had sunk two naval craft in a sea battle.Tamilnet also said the Tigers had killed some 350 soldiers in fighting on Wednesday, a claim promptly denied by the military.

The Tigers have been driven back by a prolonged military onslaught designed to finish the rebels’ 37-year armed campaign.