Sri Lankan authorities say they are on the verge of defeating Tamil Tiger rebels and have urged them to surrender. The military says the rebels have been ousted from their last stronghold following fierce fighting that killed 453 rebels. They say the rebels are now trapped in a small area along with tens of thousands of civilians.
The military sounded confident that victory in its campaign to wipe out the Tamil Tigers is close at hand. Military commanders said Monday the rebels' days are numbered.
The army says it captured the last rebel stronghold in the northeast, Puthukkudiriruppu, after three days of intense fighting. It says the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have lost many senior leaders and are now confined in a 20 square kilometer safety zone that has been designated by the government for civilians seeking sanctuary from the fighting.
But the military says it is in no hurry to enter the area from where the rebels are expected to make their last stand.
Military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara says the army's final assault will only take place after civilians trapped with the rebels have been freed.
"With the civilians, it is not possible to go and conduct offensive operations in that area. The military plan is that we will have to do a rescue operation because now we have to rescue the civilians first, in order to go for the rest of the LTTE cadres hiding in that area," said Nanayakkara.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse has appealed to the rebels to surrender and allow civilians a safe passage. A statement on the website of the president's office says the army will undertake a humanitarian exercise to free non-combatants.
However, concern is mounting for the safety of civilians. Diplomats and observers warn that this could be the deadliest phase of the war, as the army tries to target the rebels mixed in the civilian population.
Both sides have been accused of disregarding the safety of civilians. The United Nations says the rebels have been using them as human shields. The army has been accused of shelling inside the "no-fire zone," killing and wounding civilians as it tries to wipe out the guerrillas.
Independent verification of the fighting is not possible because journalists are barred from the war zone.
The rebels began their guerilla campaign for a separate Tamil homeland in 1983, and at the height of their power they controlled vast swathes of territory. But in the past year, the army has successfully pushed them out of their strongholds.