COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said Saturday that his country had defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels on the battlefield and emerged victorious from its quarter century civil war.
"My government, with the total commitment of our armed forces, has in an unprecedented humanitarian operation finally defeated the LTTE militarily," he said referring to the rebels by their formal name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
"I will be going back to a country that has been totally freed from the barbaric acts of the LTTE," he said in a speech at an international gathering in Jordan that was distributed to the media in Sri Lanka.
The military reported that fighting continued to rage in the war zone along the northeast coast. Huge explosions could be heard across the battlefield as rebels detonated their ammunition stocks and artillery dumps, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.
On Saturday morning, troops seized control of the island's entire coastline for the first time in decades, sealing the Tamil Tigers in a tiny pocket of territory and cutting off the possibility of a sea escape by the rebels' top leaders, the military said.
The rebels, who once ran a de facto state across the north, had controlled a formidable navy and sea smuggling operation.
Thousands of civilians fled intense shelling in the 1.2-square mile patch of land still under rebel control. More than 23,000 civilians have fled since Thursday, Nanayakkara said.
Government forces have been hunting for the reclusive Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his top deputies for months, but it was unclear if they remained in rebel territory or had already fled overseas.
On the verge of battlefield defeat, the rebels reiterated their calls for the government to cease its offensive and restart talks to resolve the long-standing ethnic conflict between the minority Tamils and the Sinhalese majority.
Selvarasa Pathmanathan, in charge of the rebels' international relations department, said the group welcomed President Barack Obama's call Wednesday for a peaceful end to the conflict and would do "anything that is necessary" to spare the civilians. However, he did not specifically say whether the rebels would accede to Obama's request to lay down their arms and surrender.
Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government has barred most journalists and aid workers from the conflict zone.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by the Sinhalese majority. The group, responsible for hundreds of suicide attacks, has been branded a terror organization by the U.S., E.U. and India.
The rebels also controlled a conventional army as well, with artillery units, a significant navy and even a tiny air force.
After repeated stalemates on the battlefield, the military broke through the rebel lines last year and slowly forced the insurgents into a broad retreat. The government captured the rebel's administrative capital at Kilinochchi in January and vowed to swiftly crush the group.
Meanwhile, international concern has grown for the tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in the war zone amid the unrelenting artillery bombardments, and the Red Cross has warned of "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe" for the hundreds of wounded trapped without treatment.
The government has brushed off repeated calls from foreign diplomats for a humanitarian truce in the conflict, saying it would only give the reeling rebels time to regroup.
The U.N. says 7,000 civilians were killed and 16,700 wounded in the fighting from Jan. 20 through May 7, according to a U.N. document given to The Associated Press by a senior diplomat.
Since then, doctors in the war zone say more than 1,000 civilians have been killed in a week of heavy shelling that rights groups and foreign governments have blamed on Sri Lankan forces. The government denies firing heavy weapons into the war zone.
Some 10,000 civilians escaped the war zone Saturday, Nanayakkara said. They joined more than 200,000 others who escaped in recent months and are being held in displacement camps.
U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said an estimated 20,000 people had emerged from the combat zone in the past few days and were being processed by the government.
"We have no access to that process. We hold grave fears for the safety of the estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people who are still inside the combat zone," he said.
"We are particularly concerned for the safety of two doctors — Drs. Varatharajah and Sathyamurthi — who courageously kept the medical services going throughout the months of the siege of the combat zone."
The pair ran a badly understaffed makeshift hospital in the war zone that was repeatedly shelled and overwhelmed with hundreds of casualties from the fighting nearly every day.
The navy intercepted a boat off the northeastern coast Friday and arrested the wife, son and daughter of the rebels' sea wing leader, who were among 11 people on board, Nanayakkara said.