COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka's president declared victory Saturday in his nation's quarter century civil war with the Tamil Tigers rebels. But the group's top leaders remained at large as troops and the cornered insurgents fought fierce battles across the war zone.
A triumph on the battlefield appeared inevitable after government forces captured the last bit of coastline under rebel control early Saturday, surrounding the remaining fighters in a 1.2-square mile (3.1-square kilometer) patch of land.
Thousands of civilians who had been trapped by the fighting poured across the front lines, the military said.
"My government, with the total commitment of our armed forces, has in an unprecedented humanitarian operation finally defeated the LTTE militarily," President Mahinda Rajapaksa 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 in Jordan that was distributed to the media in Sri Lanka.
The rebels, who once controlled a de facto state across much of the north, have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by the Sinhalese majority. Responsible for hundreds of suicide attacks — including the 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — the Tamil Tigers have been branded terrorists by the U.S., E.U. and India and shunned internationally.
The rebels also controlled a conventional army, 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 forced the insurgents into a broad retreat, capturing their administrative capital at Kilinochchi in January and vowing to retake control over the rest of the country.
The rebels have insisted that if they are defeated in conventional battle, they will return to their guerrilla roots.