SL troops presses to rebel zone

COLOMBO: Sri Lankan forces consolidated their control over a rebel fortification and pushed deeper into Tamil Tiger territory amid a string of battles in the region, the military said Friday.

Troops advanced Thursday into a 2.5-mile- (4-kilometer-) long coastal strip - the only piece of land still under rebel control - amid heavy resistance, the defense ministry said in a statement.

During the battles - mainly waged by snipers - government forces strengthened their hold over an earthen fortification they had breached earlier and recovered the bodies of two slain rebels, the statement said.

The rebel group was not immediately available for comment.

It is not possible to independently verify the military's claims because reporters and independent observers are barred from the war zone.

The government has vowed to stop using heavy weapons in the fight out of concern for tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the area, but a government health official in the war zone said the area came under intense shelling again Thursday evening. The official declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority.

In recent months, government forces have driven them out of their northern strongholds and say they are on the verge of defeating the rebels.