Sri Lankan soldiers, at a lagoon adjacent to the last sliver of northeastern coastal territory still held by the Tamil Tiger rebels, are standing by with water tankers, medical teams and buses awaiting more Tamil civilians escaping from the war zone. 

The United Nations says somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people are wedged inside the dwindling combat area between a lagoon and the sea. The military says the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who once controlled much of the northern and eastern coasts and parts of the interior, now hold less than five square kilometers of land and have only a few hundred fighters.  

VOA Correspondent Steve Herman was given rare access, under Sri Lankan military escort, to a coastal strip recently seized from the rebels. He has this on-scene report from the Puttumatalan Lagoon.  

View a slideshow on VOA correspondent Steve Herman's visit to the Northern Province

I'm at the closest point to the fighting where outside observers have been allowed.

High-ranking officers here tell us they do not believe the remaining fighters are still under coordinated control or eager to offer much resistance, knowing their fate is sealed and that they would flee at the first attempt they are given. The Tigers, for their part, through their spokesmen, vow never to surrender.

The Army says total defeat is imminent.

We can hear some explosions from time to time. The military says the explosions are not caused by their weapons. They say they have ceased using heavy armament to ensure no civilians are harmed in the final assault.

Mission number one, the military says, is to rescue the thousands of civilians they contend are hostages of the LTTE.

Sri Lanka's President says it will be less than a week before victory is declared. But the officers commanding the troops here say it could take a little longer than that.