Colombo: Sri Lankan troops on Monday surged forward after seizing the last big town held by Tamil Tiger rebels, aiming to strike a death blow to the 25-year separatist insurgency, the military said.
On Sunday the army announced the capture of Mullaittivu, the northeastern port seized by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1996 and turned into a major rebel military operations and command centre.
With the losss of Mullaittivu, the LTTE is now confined to 300 square km of jungle in the Indian Ocean island's northeast, down from 15,000 square km when the war re-ignited in 2006.
That leaves the LTTE - on US, EU and Indian terrorism lists - with a handful of bases and village scattered across the jungles from which they have fought since the war kicked off in earnest in 1983.
''The troops are consolidating their positions in Mullaittivu on Monday, and the other troops are moving towards Puthukudiruppu and others are fighting south of there,'' military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said, referring to an LTTE-held village.
On Monday, the Colombo Stock Exchange surged 3.2 per cent to a 10-week high on what analysts said was positive sentiment driven by the Mullaittivu victory.
The army's commander, Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka, has forecast total conventional victory by mid-April and that some hardcore LTTE fighters will go underground to carry out hit-and-run attacks. The army is ready for that, he said.
''The LTTE has been destroyed as a military force, but they still have terrorist capabilities,'' said John Drake, a security analyst with AKE Group in London.
''A lot of the cadres are likely to lay down their arms and pass themselves off as refugees, and lay low for a while.''
The army has scored three major victories this month, starting with the capture of the rebels' self-proclaimed capital of Kilinochchi on January 2 and the expulsion of the Tigers from the Jaffna Peninsula a week later.
Aid agencies say about 230,000 civilians fleeing the fighting are trapped in the war zone. Rights groups and the government accuse the LTTE of keeping them as human shields.
The LTTE could not be reached for comment. But the pro-rebel website www.TamilNet.com accused the military on Monday of hitting a 32 sq km safety zone set up last week by the army, killing 100 civilians and wounding hundreds. It cited medical sources it did not identify.
The military denied the report and said it has ceased firing into the safety zone since setting it up on Wednesday. ''We are not engaging the safe zone,'' Nanayakkara said.
Mullaittivu District Government Agent Emelda Sukumar told Reuters from Kilinochchi that she had not been able to confirm the latest reports of civilian deaths inside the war zone, owing to communications problems within the battlefield.
''My staff officers say civilians are in a dangerous situation and unable to escape from the area due to heavy fighting,'' she said.
Sukumar last week said at least 100 civilians were killed in artillery exchanges. Though she has since moved to an army-held area, she at that time was in LTTE-controlled territory.
It is difficult to get a clear picture from the war zone, since both sides block independent media from entering it.
The LTTE say they are the sole representatives of the Tamil minority, which complains of mistreatment by successive governments led by the Sinhalese ethnic majority since independence from Britain in 1948.
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