updated 4/5/2009 1:12:14 PM ET 2009-04-05T17:12:14

Three days of intense fighting in Sri Lanka's northeast has left 420 Tamil Tiger rebels dead and pushed the remaining guerrillas into a small "no-fire" zone crowded with tens of thousands of civilians, the military said, a development likely to raise international concerns for the safety of those trapped.

The government offensive means the entire Puthukkudiyiruppu area, the last rebel stronghold on the edge of the safety zone in the island's northeast, is under military control, spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said Sunday. He said the Tamil Tigers are now confined to the "no-fire" zone in a narrow strip of land along a beach.

The "no-fire" zone was declared earlier this year by the government as a place for civilians caught in the fighting to go. The area measures just 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers).

But now that the zone is all that remains of rebel territory, the focus turns to what will happen to civilians who fled there in hopes of reaching safety but now find themselves caught in what the military says will be the Tamil Tigers' last stand in a civil war that has spanned 25 years.

Fortifications inside the 'no-fire' zone?
The military has accused the rebels of building fortifications inside the "no-fire" zone in preparation for a final showdown, but Nanayakkara declined Sunday to comment on what the military's next step would be.

"We want to rescue the civilians. That's our priority," Nanayakkara said.

The government has rejected rebel calls for a cease-fire but has said it would continue to pause fighting — as it has done in the past — to allow civilians to leave the area.

But earlier Sunday the military released a statement saying the rebels were "now facing a total annihilation as the soldiers are engaged in man-to-man combat against them in the last terror pocket."

The question remains how the military will "annihilate" the rebels while protecting the innocent.

Even before it became the rebels last territory on the island, the United Nations and aid organizations accused the rebels of firing artillery shells from the "no-fire" zone and holding the civilians there as human shields. The rebels have denied the charges.

The rebels, in turn, have accused the military of shelling the zone, a charge the government denies.

Thousands trapped inside the zone
The U.N. estimates 150,000 to 190,000 people are trapped in the zone, with dozens dying each day. But the government says more than 23,000 civilians escaped last month and 30,000 to 40,000 still remain.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced concern last week about their safety.

"The secretary-general calls upon the LTTE leadership to allow civilians to leave the conflict area of their own free will," a statement from Ban's spokesperson said, referring to the rebels by their formal name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The rebels have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have faced decades of marginalization by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

Government forces have been saying for months they are in a final push to defeat the rebels and end the war after a string of major victories in which the rebel administrative capital and main bases were captured.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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