Sri Lankan troops fought heavy battles Monday with the Tamil Tigers in the small patch of jungle that remains under rebel control, a day after government forces drove the insurgents from their last major stronghold, the military said.
With troops sweeping across the north and forcing the rebels into a broad retreat from the wide swath of land they once controlled, the military says it is close to crushing the group and ending the 25-year-old civil war in this Indian Ocean island nation.
But analysts warn that it is simply shifting from a conventional fight between two armies to a guerrilla war likely to be fought amid the hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians reportedly trapped in the jungles with the rebels.
Government forces have squeezed the rebels into a 115-square-mile area in the jungle, the military said.
On Sunday, the army overran the coastal town of Mullaittivu — the last major town under rebel control.
Troops were consolidating their control of the town Monday while other forces pushed into the jungles in the Vishwamadu area and fought pitched battles with the rebels there, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.
"They are engaging with artillery. They are engaging with mortars. They are engaging with small arms," he said.
Rebel officials could not be reached for comment because communications to the northern war zone have been cut. It is impossible to verify the military's accounts because independent journalists are barred from the area.
In recent weeks, the Sri Lankan army has driven the rebels from their administrative capital of Kilinochchi and forced them into a broad retreat.
In announcing the fall of Mullaittivu on Sunday, army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka said the war was "95 percent" over and he appealed for new recruits to join the army and help complete the job.
"There is still a lot of work to be done, Sri Lanka's former army commander Gen. Jerry de Silva said. "It is likely they (the rebels) will resort to guerrilla tactics, both jungle and urban," he said, adding that the jungle canopy above much of the remaining rebel territory could make it difficult for troops to rely on air support.
Hundreds of thousands trapped
Human rights groups and diplomats have expressed growing concerns about the safety of hundreds of thousands of war refugees reportedly trapped inside the rebel-controlled areas.
Rights groups have accused the Tamil Tigers of preventing civilians from fleeing the war zone, while the government has said the rebels hoped to use the civilians as human shields. Reports of civilian casualties in the area have grown in recent weeks.
One diplomat said the use of heavy artillery in such a confined area so densely populated with civilians was extremely dangerous and could result in more civilian deaths than if the government relied solely on ground troops.
The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of antagonizing the Sri Lankan government. International aid workers also refuse to speak publicly, fearing the government will brand them rebel sympathizers and expel them.
The Tamil Tigers have fought since 1983 to create a separate state in the north and east for minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of successive governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.
Rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran remains at large, and the ethnic tensions that have fueled the conflict remain unresolved.