COLOMBO, Jan 25, 2009 (AFP) - Sri Lankan troops on Sunday overran the last town controlled by Tamil rebels, army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka said, striking a major blow in Asia's longest-running ethnic conflict.
"We have completely captured Mullaittivu," the army chief said in a televised address to the nation.
The fall of Mullaittivu is a huge loss to the Tiger rebels, who were dislodged three weeks ago from their political capital of Kilinochchi, where they had the trappings of a separate state.
Since July 2007, the Tigers have been steadily losing territory and are now confined to a 300-square-kilometre (115-square-mile) area of jungle along the northeastern coast, Fonseka said.
"We have cleared 95 percent of the work (to defeat the Tigers)," Fonseka said. "The end of terrorism is near and we will definitely win. The Tiger garrison of Mullaittivu was destroyed today."
He said troops fought their way through 40 kilometers (25 miles) of thick jungle and climbed over earth barriers erected by the Tigers in their drawn-out offensive to take Mullaittivu. He said the campaign began a year ago.
"The Tigers are now confined to a small strip of between 20 kilometers by 15 kilometers," he said, adding that 150,000 civilians were still being held hostage by the Tigers.
"We will soon free them from the hold of the terrorists," he added.
A visiting Japanese envoy, Yasushi Akashi, on Sunday expressed fears for the civilians and said the Tigers should allow them to reach safety, urging the government to send more relief supplies.
Government officials said public offices in Mullaittivu had closed at the weekend and public servants had moved away from the city centre ahead of the military advance on Sunday. Civilians too had moved away further north into the jungle areas where the guerrillas had retreated.
Earlier in the day, small groups of special forces backed by 50,000 soldiers and helicopter gunships entered the town of Mullaittivu amid heavy rebel resistance.
The advance was the latest in a series of successes for the government in a massive military assault aimed at ending the separatist conflict led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Troops in small groups used boats to enter the western side of Mullaittivu, a military official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The Tigers had blown up a dam and flooded surrounding areas on Saturday in a bid to stall the military's progress.
After retaking the rebels' main city of Kilinochchi earlier this month, the army vowed to capture rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran as troops stormed into territory long under the complete control of the guerrillas.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse said in a New Year's address that 2009 would be the year of "heroic victory" over the Tigers, who have been waging war since 1972 to establish an independent homeland for ethnic Tamils.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed since the conflict began but Rajapakse's government pulled out of an on-off ceasefire last year and launched a fresh campaign to crush the Tigers once and for all.
The guerrillas are known to maintain their main military facilities in the lagoon and jungle district of Mullaittivu, from where security forces were ejected in 1996.
Since then, the Tigers have had a free run of the northeastern coastline to smuggle in arms and ammunition.
The Tigers have not commented on the latest fighting, but Prabhakaran said last year that he would fight on. The group became known for their trademark suicide bombings.
Human rights groups have criticized the Tigers for forcing children to fight as soldiers, and the LTTE has been labeled a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union and neighboring India.