COLOMBO: Sri Lankan troops fighting Tamil rebels captured Elephant Pass yesterday, a strategic causeway linking the Jaffna peninsula with the mainland, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said.
His announcement came as foreign governments and human rights groups called for a full investigation into the killing of Sunday Leader newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunga.
Far south of the war zone, on the border of the Trincomalee and Anuradhapura districts, a claymore mine explosion killed three airmen on patrol and four civilians. Six others were wounded in the blast.
A pro-rebel website said the tally was 12 soldiers killed and six injured, quoting unnamed Tigers.
Residents in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo took to the streets and set off firecrackers as radio stations announced the capture of the Elephant Pass.
The Tamil Tigers had held the pass since April 2000, and its loss is another huge blow to the rebels after the fall of their political capital, Kilinochchi.
The rebels are now almost totally confined to the jungle district of Mullaittivu in the northeast, where some 300,000 civilians are also living.
The military now controls a 142-km stretch of the important A-9 highway and can supply troops and nearly half a million civilians in Jaffna by road, said the president.
"The A-9 route is symbolic of the unity that exists between the north and the south of our country."
Military officials said Elephant Pass fell to soldiers advancing northwards from Kilinochchi and another column that moved south from earlier army defences on the Jaffna peninsula.
Government forces were also moving towards the remaining jungle hideouts of the Tigers in the district of Mullaittivu, the army said.
Human rights groups have warned that civilian casualties were likely to mount as the government closes in on the insurgents.
In Colombo, anger grew over the editor's assassination with the opposition forcing parliament to close early and hundreds of media activists staging street protests.
In parliament, United National Party members shouted protests and waved placards, forcing the legislature to close.