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COLOMBO: Shortly after the conclusion of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit in Colombo where the curbing of terrorism featured prominently, a smiling President Mahinda Rajapakse was featured on state television conversing with an injured soldier.

“The war will be over when Prabhakaran is forced to surrender,” the president was seen telling the soldier who had lost both his legs in the fierce battles that raged across the north during the summit of South Asian leaders despite a proclamation of a ceasefire by the LTTE during the Saarc summit period. President Rajapakse’s statement of bringing LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the elusive architect of Sri Lanka’s 25-year-old war to his feet, comes as the military, for the first time in around 10 years entered the two last northern bastions of the guerillas where the Tamil Tigers run their own de facto state.

Days after the military takeover of LTTE-controlled areas in northern Mannar where fighting was concentrated for nearly one year, security forces last Saturday began entering the Killinochchi region amidst stiff resistance from the LTTE, defence spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said. With it taking on the LTTE’s strongest base, the military stepped up its military recruitment drive announcing that victory was only a step away.

“Troops who have entered Killinochchi and Mullativu would be supported by maximum firepower. The morale of the army is high and we are seeing a healthy recruitment rate,” a senior military official said. Meanwhile, the Colombo based Daily Mirror on Tuesday quoted UN spokesman Gordon Weiss as saying that the fighting between the security forces and the LTTE had escalated, resulting in some 57,000 more people being displaced by the end of July. The paper reported Mr Weiss as stating that the war situation and the fuel shortage made it extremely difficult and dangerous for UN humanitarian missions to transport food and other much needed supplies to these people. Military officials meanwhile say that the LTTE is using civilians living in its territory as human shields.

Sources from the North said on Wednesday that the rebels were preventing civilians from leaving for military-controlled areas ahead of what the government vows is the last phase of annihilating the LTTE and its ageing guerilla leader.

Heavy battles since Sunday in the rebel-held Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu regions have killed around 50 rebels and one soldier, defence authorities said amidst scattered fighting in adjoining northern areas of Vavuniya and Welioya. Analysts say government troops having entered the heartland of the LTTE are in for a long haul as they are likely to be faced with the maximum possible resistance the Tiger separatists possess. After being pushed back from all their eastern strongholds in a period of two years by military offensives the rebels are left with the task of defending the remaining swathes of territory they hold in the north in the face of a determined and focused military drive steered by Sri Lankan Army Commander Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka who survived an LTTE assassination attempt in 2006. Military analysts admit that the present military assault carried out by the government for the past two years is by far the most successful military offensive for the Sri Lankan Army but Killinochchi and Mullativu are two northern areas where the rebels are at their strongest and observers say a high death toll is expected from both sides.

Casualty figures cannot be assessed independently by the media as journalists are not allowed into the war zone.

Analysts also warn that the military’s swift advance into rebel-controlled areas and the large-scale withdrawal by the Tamil Tigers from their main bases suggest some secret plan by the separatists.

Sources say that as witnessed previously, when the army launched major offensives into rebel-held regions, the LTTE has a history of withdrawing from their bases with the intention of drawing the troops deep into unfamiliar territory. “The plan by the LTTE militant hierarchy could be to wait till the military advances fully and then launch major attacks to regain lost areas,” one observer quipped.

However, independent sources admit that the LTTE has lost more than two thirds of its military capability and is experiencing a heavy shortage of manpower and supplies. “The LTTE has clearly lost capability to launch any major offensives. In contrast the strategy of the government military is to attack with the heaviest fire power possible,” an analyst said.

Government officials awaiting a complete crushing of the LTTE say a defeat of the rebel outfit which would lead to them laying down their weapons could in turn lead to a devolution of power for all the communities of Sri Lanka including the Tamils. “The war is being waged to defeat terrorism. But this government has clearly said that we will accept a ceasefire by the LTTE only if it completely lays down its arms,” government defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said nearly three weeks after the government categorically rejected an LTTE ceasefire described by the guerillas as a goodwill offer for Saarc.

“We do not need bogus ceasefires. Right now we need a crushing of terrorism,” Rambukwella said as the country prepares for a bloodiest bout of fighting in next few months in the rebel de facto territory of Killinochchi and Mullativu.