COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – A Sri Lankan airstrike pounded a meeting of top rebel leaders early Friday, killing the head of the Tamil Tigers' political wing and five others in an attack seen as a major victory for the government in its long fight with the guerrillas.
The killing of S.P. Tamilselvan, assumed by many to be the secretive group's second in command, was certain to badly damage the rebels' morale nearly two weeks after they stunned the government with a devastating attack on an air base.
"This is a message that we know their leaders' location," Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Associated Press. "This confirms that our information is very accurate."
Another five rebel leaders were killed in the bombing, according to a statement from the rebel group that was e-mailed to reporters and confirmed Tamilselvan's death. Rebel spokesmen did not answer phone calls seeking further comment.
In a separate attack, Sri Lankan jets pounded a camp belonging to the Black Tigers, the rebel group's suicide fighters, in Iranamadu in the rebel-held Kilinochchi district, air force spokesman Group Capt. Ajantha Silva said.
The suicide unit has been the target of repeated airstrikes since its attack on the Anuradhapura air base last week killed 14 soldiers, destroyed eight aircraft and left the government trying to explain how the rebels were able to infiltrate a key military facility.
The military initially gave no details of casualties from either strike, but later confirmed that Tamilselvan had been killed.
With secretive Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran almost never seen publicly in recent years, Tamilselvan had become the rebel leadership's link to the outside world.
He regularly held talks with peace envoys and diplomats, met with foreign humanitarian workers and gave interviews to the few international journalists allowed by the government to cross into rebel-held territory in the north.
He headed the group's delegation at the failed peace talks in Geneva last year.
In an interview with The Associated Press in July, he promised to retaliate for the army's capture of eastern Sri Lanka from the rebels.
"(We will) weaken the military capacity of the government of Sri Lanka, which will invariably end up hitting economic targets as well," he said.
In a sign of the focus on fighting by the rebel group — where everyone from politicians to doctors are also combatants — Tamilselvan held the rank of brigadier, the highest rank in the rebel force.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, following decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese-controlled governments. More than 70,000 have been killed in the fighting.
Friday's air attacks came a day after a series of ground battles near the rebels' de facto state in the north killed 30 Tamil Tiger fighters and two soldiers, according to the military.
In one attack, government troops pushed across the front lines south of their rebel-controlled area in the northern Mannar district, sparking a battle that killed 22 rebels and two soldiers, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.
Also Thursday, a group of rebels attacked government forces manning the front lines north of rebel-held territory, triggering a gun battle that left eight guerrillas dead, he said.
The rebel-affiliated Web site TamilNet reported that 25 soldiers were killed and more than 60 wounded in the fighting Thursday, while only seven rebels were killed.
Fighting between the two sides has escalated in recent weeks as government officials hinted they were preparing an offensive to capture the north and crush the rebels.