Columbo—Sri Lanka says it is close to finishing 25 years of bloody civil war, after army officials said at the weekend that troops had confined the Tamil Tigers to a small wedge of jungle.
More than 70,000 people have died since 1983 and millions have been displaced in the war between the government and Tamil rebels who want a separate state in the island's north and east.
On Sunday, the army announced the capture of the last big town held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the eastern port of Mullaittivu the rebels seized in 1996 and turned into a major military operations and command centre.
With that, the LTTE is now confined to 300 square km (186 square miles) of jungle in the Indian Ocean island's northeast, down from 15,000 square km (5,792 sq miles) when the war re-ignited in 2006.
That leaves the LTTE–on U.S., EU and Indian terrorism lists–with a handful of bases and village scattered across the jungles from which they have fought since the war kicked off in earnest in 1993.
And many are asking just how quickly the ground war will be over. The army's commander, Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka, has forecast totaly victory by mid-April.
"The troops are consolidating their positions in Mullaittivu today, and the other troops are moving towards Puthukudiruppu and others are fighting south of there," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said, referring to an LTTE-held village.
He brushed off analysts who said the Tigers were at home in the thick jungles and could mount a major counter-attack.
"We met them in the jungles. They cleared the underbrush when we were moving forward, which shows they are afraid to face us in the jungles," Nanayakkara said.
The army has scored three major victories this month, starting with the capture of the rebels' self-proclaimed capital of Kilinochchi on Jan. 2 and the expulsion of the Tigers from the Jaffna Peninsula a week later.
Aid agencies say about 230,000 civilians fleeing the fighting are trapped in the war zone. Rights groups and the government accuse the LTTE of keeping them as human shields.
At least 100 civilians were killed in artillery exchanges last week, according to a top government official working in the Tiger-controlled area.
The army set up a 32 square km (20 sq miles) safe zone, but said the LTTE had moved its artillery and heavy weapons inside it.
The LTTE could not be reached for comment. The pro-rebel website www.TamilNet.com accused the military on Monday of hitting the safety zone and killing 22 civilians and wounding 60, citing medical sources it did not identify.
"We have not targeted this area. It is the LTTE that does these kind of things. They are the people who exploded the Kalmadukulam tank bund and flooded an entire village," Nanayakkara, the military spokesman, said.
He was referring to a dam at the Kalmadukulam reservoir, which the military said the Tigers blew on Saturday to prevent a rapid advance by soldiers.
It is difficult to get a clear picture from the war zone, since both sides block independent media from entering it.
The LTTE say they are the sole representatives of the Tamil minority, which complains of mistreatment by successive governments led by the Sinhalese ethnic majority since independence from Britain in 1948.
Milestones charting the conflict
1948 -- Island of Ceylon gains independence from Britain.
1956 -- Government makes majority Sinhala language the language of state. Minority Tamils say they feel marginalised.
1958 -- First anti-Tamil riots break out, killing dozens and forcing thousands from their homes.
1972 -- Country renamed Sri Lanka, becomes republic. Buddhism designated the principal religion.
1976 -- Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) formed by militant Velupillai Prabhakaran.
1983 -- Tiger attack in north kills 13 soldiers, triggering anti-Tamil riots in capital, Colombo. Hundreds die, thousands flee. Start of what Tigers call "First Eelam War".
1987 -- Having earlier armed Tigers, India sends troops to enforce truce. Tigers renege on pact, refuse to disarm and begin three years of fighting that kills 1,000 Indian soldiers.
1990 -- India withdraws. LTTE controls northern city of Jaffna. "Second Eelam War" begins.
1991 -- Suspected Tiger suicide bomber kills former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in southern India.
1993 -- President Ranasinghe Premadasa assassinated by suicide bomber. LTTE widely blamed.
1995 -- President Chandrika Kumaratunga agrees to truce with rebels. "Eelam War 3" begins when rebels sink naval craft. Tigers lose Jaffna to government forces.
1995-2001 -- War rages across north and east. Suicide attack on central bank in Colombo kills around 100. Kumaratunga wounded in another attack.
2002 -- Landmark ceasefire signed after Norwegian mediation.
2003 -- Tigers pull out of peace talks, ceasefire holds.
2004 -- Tamil Tiger eastern commander Colonel Karuna Amman breaks away from LTTE and takes 6,000 fighters with him. Asian tsunami hits in December, killing around 30,000 Sri Lankans.
2005 -- Suspected Tiger assassin kills foreign minister. Anti-Tiger hardliner Mahinda Rajapaksa wins presidency.
2006 -- Fighting flares in April-July, raising fears of start of "Eelam War 4". New talks fail in Geneva in October.
2007 -- Government captures Tiger's eastern stronghold of Vakarai in January. In July, government says it has driven rebels from the entire east.
2008 -- Government annuls 2002 ceasefire in early January. By August, troops are advancing on Tiger strongholds on four fronts.
2009 -- Jan 2 -- Troops seize Tiger's defacto capital, Kilinochchi. Attack helicopters and jets strike remaining rebel towns.
- Jan 7 -- Cabinet redesignates Tigers as a terrorist group, saying they are not allowing civilians to leave war zone.
- Jan 9 -- Troops take Elephant Pass, former army base and gateway to Jaffna peninsula. Tigers cleared from A-9 road that links north to south for first time in 23 years.
- Jan 25 -- Northeastern port of Mullaittivu, the last big rebel-held town, falls. Army says the war is close to the end.