Sensing an imminent collapse of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Sri Lankan forces on Thursday encircled the last 8 sq km patch of area in the northern war zone, where they suspect Tiger supremo V Prabhakaran and his top aides are holed up.
A naval blockade was put around northern Mullaittivu close to the areas where LTTE cadres still had access to the sea, as Sri Lankan army chief Sarath Fonseka said the troops knew the 'general area' where Prabhakaran could be hiding.
Backed by tanks, the Lankan forces surrounded the small jungle patch where an estimated 800-900 Tamil Tigers were still offering resistance. "We are set to destroy him," Fonseka said, admitting that his forces were facing stiff resistance from the remnant LTTE cadres. But the army chief said the security forces' primary task at the moment was to get trapped Tamil civilians out of the war zone to safety.
Echoing his chief's words, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanyakkara said, "Fierce fighting was going on. But our priority is to get the civilians out."
"We can finish them off very quickly after the civilians come out," the spokesman said.
The Lankan army chief said that Prabhakaran would try to escape through the seas so the navy is on full alert to thwart any escape bid by the top Tiger leadership.
"The Sri Lankan Navy has been put on alert to prevent any attempt by Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran or other senior LTTE leaders from fleeing the country," a senior defence official said.
"We do not know the exact place where he is hiding but we suspect that he most probably is hiding amongst civilians, trying to take cover behind them," Fonseka said.
"According to the orders given to us by the government, we are continuing our mission to destroy the terrorists. These days we have a greater mission. We have to save the civilians who were used as human shields," the army chief told BBC.
"I think there will be a maximum of around 15,000 civilians in the remaining areas of the LTTE in the No fire Zone. There are around 300-400 cadres though around 700 civilians were forced to take up arms and were also deployed in bunkers," Fonseka said.
"I think this time around, he (Prabhakaran) will attempt to reach his desired destination via sea," he added.
Meanwhile, the Mass Media and Information Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene told reporters that the army has not launched attacks into the 'No Fire Zone' in the recent past.
"It was the LTTE that fired at the army in the 'No Fire Zone in the recent times. I believe that if the government had retaliated on a large scale, there would have been many deaths," Yapa said, adding that the army had exercised restraint. He said many of the civilians were injured during the attacks launched by the LTTE and that four suicide blasts by the rebels were reported till Wednesday.
It was due to these strikes that there were casualties of Tamil civilians, he said. Meanwhile, the number of people who crossed over from the No Fire Zone since Monday rose to 103,143.