Sri Lankan troops on Saturday moved deeper into rebel territory after the capture of a strategic coastal town from Tamil Tigers in fighting that killed 376 combatants, the defence ministry said.
The troops built new defences in the former rebel bastion of Vakarai in northeast Batticaloa and prepared to advance further north after weeks of heavy clashes involving artillery duels, Sri Lankan airforce jets and special commandos, the ministry said.
"Sri Lankan troops are advancing further north, while consolidating the defences in the Vakarai town area," the military said without giving details.
Military sources said ground troops were moving on several flanks to secure a stretch of land along the coastline in a bid to cut off rebel supplies in the multi-ethnic eastern region.
Separately in overnight fighting in the nearby district of Trincomalee, four soldiers were killed and three wounded in a rebel mortar bomb attack, the ministry said.
They also said a suspected Tiger rebel was killed in a confrontation with troops in Trincomalee, adding that rebel losses were believed to be higher.
"Two T-56 assault rifles, one RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade), two tents and several LTTE uniforms were recovered by troops in a subsequent search operation," the statement said.
Sri Lankan troops captured Vakarai as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) pulled out of the enclave in the face of the military advance after weeks of fighting that killed at least 45 security forces and 331 Tiger rebels in the town, where the guerrillas had run their own police and civil administration.
"Following an hour-long effort (Friday) the Sri Lanka army troops finally liberated the Vakarai town and hospital which was used as an artillery launching pad by the terrorists," a military statement said on Friday.
The LTTE made no direct reference to the fall of Vakarai, but said they withdrew from a key location along the main A-15 road leading to Vakarai.
"The LTTE decided to pull back from its Panichchankeni position which is on the access route to Vakarai," the LTTE said. It said army shelling had killed 93 civilians in November and December alone.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said 10,000 to 15,000 civilians trapped in the combat zone began fleeing Friday.
"Early this morning, these people started fleeing south towards Batticaloa," the ICRC said. Vakarai is 65 kilometres north of Batticaloa, capital of the district of the same name.
Three weeks ago, Sri Lanka's army chief Sarath Fonseka said he planned to clear the island's multi-ethnic eastern region of Tiger rebels.
Vakarai originally housed about 35,000 civilians, but an estimated 20,000 had fled fighting the area in recent weeks.
The United Nations and other charities had asked the Tigers to allow civilians to leave and also urged the military to avoid targeting non-combatants.
An escalation in violence since December 2005 has killed over 3,800 people, despite a Norwegian-arranged truce in place since 2002.
Over 60,000 people have been killed in Sri Lanka's Tamil separatist conflict in the past 35 years.