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Sri Lanka Claims Rebels Now Cornered in Swath of Jungle

Sri Lanka's army says the rebel Tamil Tigers are completely cornered and one of Asia's longest-running civil wars will soon be over.

The Sri Lankan military contends it is clearing the last several villages containing Tamil Tigers and has pushed the rest of the rebel force into the jungle.

Army media director Brigadier Udaya Nanyakkara tells VOA News the rebels have been squeezed into a small patch of land, effectively crushing the separatists who once ran a virtual Tamil mini-state in the north.

"Presently we have confined them to 300 square kilometers. They are firing their mortars, they are firing small arms, especially operating in small pockets in forward areas," he said. "We are successfully confronting them and gaining control of the area step by step."

It is not possible to verify the account as independent journalists are not allowed in the area. There have been no statements recently from the rebels, officially known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

United Nations officials in Sri Lanka are expressing concern about the thousands of trapped civilians and dwindling food supplies in the war zone, calling it a crisis. U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss tells VOA "dozens" of civilians were killed and injured in the cross-fire during the past few days.

Military spokesman Nanayakkara says a 35-square-kilometer safe zone has been established for the refugees.

"People have been informed by air-dropping leaflets to them so that the people will be able to move into this safe zone," added Nanyakkara. "We are concerned about the civilians and we are not targeting any locations where civilians are stationed."

Analysts say the remnants of the rebel force, believed led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, can be expected to engage in guerrilla tactics and urban terrorist attacks. That is an assessment Army Brigadier Nanayakkara does not disagree with.

"Definitely they will resort to some other activities, hiding in other areas disguised as civilians," he said. "After liberating the whole area we will systematically get them also so that we will be able to eradicate terrorism completely from the country."

Meanwhile the international community is expressing concern about the rising number of killings, assaults and threats against the media - including journalists critical of the government's policies and its war on the Tamil rebels. The United States is calling for Sri Lanka's government to investigate and prevent further intimidation of the media.

The U.S. Ambassador in Colombo, Robert Blake, tells VOA such attacks undermine the rebuilding of a united and democratic Sri Lanka.

"What needs to happen now is for the government to really focus on this long-standing pattern of impunity whereby no one has been brought to justice for the many high-profile killings, abductions and other abuses that have taken place," said Blake.

The island's ethnic conflict goes back to the 19th century. At the start of the post-colonial era - about 60 years ago - the mainly Buddhist majority in the south began to systematically impose the Sinhalese language on the highlands and the north, which was seen as undermining the culture of the primarily Hindu Tamils.