Sri Lankan troops have cornered the Tamil Tigers in their northeastern jungle hideout of Mullaittivu and the guerrillas have nowhere left to run except into the Indian Ocean, the army chief said.
Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka said his forces had surrounded the district of Mullaittivu, the last urban bastion of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leaving them a 40km stretch of coastline.
“We have surrounded them from all sides and the only option for them is to jump into the sea because they still have 40km of coastline,” Fonseka told reporters late on Saturday.
Fonseka said he believed Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran may have already escaped the country by sea.
“We don’t know if he is still there. He may have already fled in a boat,” Fonseka said.
Government troops had killed at least 30 Tamil Tiger guerrillas in heavy fighting near the rebels’ remaining jungle hideouts on Saturday, Fonseka said.
He said fighting had erupted in Mullaittivu district on Saturday when the LTTE resisted an army advance.
“Troops found 30 bodies of terrorists,” Fonseka said, adding that troops had found the bodies of more than 100 rebels killed so far this month. “Tiger casualties are increasing.”
He said troops had advanced 17km into rebel-held Mullaittivu area in the past 17 days and that rebel resistance was crumbling faster than the military had anticipated.
The ongoing massive assault by Sri Lankan troops has left the Tigers cornered in their military stronghold of Mullaittivu after the fall of their political capital of Kilinochchi earlier this month.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed since the Tamils launched their struggle for a separate homeland in 1972 in the Sinhalese-majority island.
Meanwhile, concern is intensifying over the fate of the 350,000 civilians trapped in the rapidly shrinking Tamil Tiger area.
The army said last week that it had taken new swathes of territory from the separatist rebels, forcing the dwindling guerrilla troops to retreat to their last remaining stronghold, the small coastal town of Mullaitivu.
Aid agencies believe that hundreds of thousands of people made homeless by the latest offensive had been pushed back, along with the guerrilla fighters, and were crowded into a densely forested patch of land around 32km wide. Most are thought to be sheltering with locals, or in shacks thrown together from palm leaves, and food supplies are restricted.
“We are worried that, because the area under attack is now so small, and the number of civilians so high, casualties will soar,” said the director of a Colombo-based foreign aid body, asking who asked not to be named.
It is near-impossible to establish whether such fears are justified, because the Sri Lankan government has excluded journalists, international observers, and most aid organisations from the conflict zone.
Only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) retains access to the Vanni, the area previously controlled by the Tigers. Paul Castella, the ICRC’s country director, said there was chaos as frantic civilians tried to flee, stating that he was “extremely concerned” that no safe escape passage had been cleared for them.