COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan forces captured the Tamil Tigers' de facto capital Friday, winning a major victory in a decades-long battle to destroy the ethnic separatists and crush their dream of establishing an independent state.
The rebels, who still control 620 square miles of northeastern jungle — an area about the size of Los Angeles — swiftly sent the message they would fight on. They carried out a suicide attack near air force headquarters in the capital, Colombo, killing three airmen and wounding 37 other people, authorities said.
Sri Lanka's ethnic minority Tamils have long complained they are treated as second-class citizens, with Sinhalese used as the nation's official language and members of the dominant group traditionally favored for government jobs.
The fall of Kilinochchi was a devastating blow to the rebels' dream of establishing a state for Tamils in the northeast. It also was a milestone in a civil war that has killed at least 70,000 people and plagued this Indian Ocean island nation for 25 years.
Foreign mediators have called for a political solution to the fighting.
The Tamil Tigers have been blamed for scores of bombings and suicide attacks and are listed as a terror group by the United States and European Union.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid described the Tigers as "one of the most notorious and brutal terrorist organizations" but called for a peaceful dialogue to resolve the legitimate concerns of Tamils.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has vowed to destroy the group formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, announced the fall of Kilinochchi in a nationally televised speech.
Celebrations erupted across Colombo, where people flooded the streets, dancing, waving Sri Lankan flags and setting off firecrackers.