COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Government forces captured the last Tamil Tiger rebel base in Sri Lanka's volatile east on Wednesday, the army chief said, dealing a major blow to the rebels' two-decade fight for an independent homeland.
The fall of their eastern base, Thoppigala, gives the government control over the entire eastern province for the first time in nearly 14 years. The Tigers still control parts of northern Sri Lanka, where they maintain a de facto state.
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.
The war has escalated over the past 20 months, with assassinations, airstrikes and steady fighting killing more than 5,000 people, despite a 2002 Norwegian-brokered cease-fire.
Troops seized the Thoppigala base Wednesday and were chasing fleeing insurgents, army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka told The Associated Press.
The military hailed the capture of Thoppigala as a major victory, and senior military officials on the ground said Monday they hoped to capture or kill the remaining rebels by the end of July, bringing all of eastern Sri Lanka under government control for the first time since 1994.
Rasiah Ilanthirayan, the rebels' military spokesman, acknowledged that government forces may have captured the Thoppigala base, but said resistance in the east would not cease.
"We have changed our tactics and it is not surprising if they have entered the region. But whether they will be able to stay there peacefully is another question," Ilanthirayan said by telephone from the northern rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi.
He did not elaborate on the changed tactics.
Government and rebel forces have battled intensely for control of the Thoppigala base, hidden in a region of caves and crannies that made it ideal for guerrillas.
The rebels have been routed from their other eastern bases during heavy fighting over the last year.
A senior military official told journalists visiting Thoppigala this week that fighting is not likely to end with the government's capture of Thoppigala, and that rebel cells hidden among villages could continue attacking soldiers.
Former Air Marshall Harry Goonetilleke called the seizure of Thoppigala an important success for the military, but said holding the region could be costly.
"You can win a battle with 2,000 troops but to hold it you need 10,000 minimum," he said.
The government is planning to recruit about 50,000 more troops, costing more than 7 billion Sri Lankan rupees $62 million per year in salaries alone, Goonetilleke said.
Goonetilleke said the government should now negotiate with the rebels rather than begin an all-out operation to capture northern guerrilla strongholds because the international community and neighboring India would not support a strike that would likely cause heavy civilian casualties and exacerbate a refugee crisis.
News of the military's latest victory came hours before peace-broker Norway's Ambassador Hans Brattskar was to meet top rebels in Kilinochchi to discuss the island's withered cease-fire.
Brattskar flew by government plane to Vavuniya, the last government-held town in the north before rebel territory, and would travel overland to the Tigers' headquarters, said Rajiva Wijesinha, a government official.
"I hope he will persuade their political leadership to return to the negotiating table," Wijesinha said.
In January, troops routed the rebels from their eastern coastal strongholds of Vaharai and Kathiraveli villages in the eastern Batticaloa district and in February launched operations to clear small rebel camps around Thoppigala.