Sri Lankan security forces captured Sampur town in the eastern district of Trincomalee from the Tamil Tiger rebels on Monday, thus ensuring the safety of the Trincomalee harbour and naval base.
But the LTTE said its artillery pieces were still intact, having been removed to safer places, which an informed Tamil source identified as the Verugal-Vaharai area in Batticaloa district further down south.
"Our armed forces have captured Sampur for the welfare and benefit of the people living there," said the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in an official statement.
"We have neutralised the LTTE's gun positions and our troops have entered Sampur. But since Sampur is a large area, the process of consolidation will be on for a few more days," the government defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told Hindustan Times.
The area to be controlled is about 20 sq kms.
The LTTE's military spokesman Rasaiah Ilanthirayan, said that fighting was still going on in the borders of Sampur and that the LTTE was inflicting heavy casualties on the government forces.
"Our guns are with us. They had been removed to safe places," he told Hindustan Times over the phone from Kilinochchi.
"The government's only achievements are the killing of 97 civilians, the wounding of 216, and the displacement of 45,000 in Sampur only," Ilanthirayan said.
Writing in www.transcurrents.com Sri Lankan Tamil analyst DBS Jeyaraj said that the LTTE had removed its guns to Verugal and Vaharai region in Batticaloa district.
The principle aim of the Sri Lankan armed forces was to silence the LTTE's guns in Sampur to ensure the safety of Trincomalee harbour.
Strategic significance of Sampur
The LTTE's presence in Sampur had been posing a very grave threat to Trincomalee harbour and naval base across the Koddiyar Bay.
It commands the entry to the harbour.
The LTTE had surreptitiously taken over Sampur over the last four years using the ceasefire agreement of February 2002, and had made it an important artillery base.
It had kept up an artillery barrage on the Trincomalee harbour from Sampur making it difficult for the harbour to function normally.
Civilian shipping had become extremely problematical.
The battle to get Sampur was launched by the Sri Lankan tri-services on August 28.
Though supported by the navy and the air force, government's ground troops made slow progress till September 1 because the LTTE had mined the area heavily.
The LTTE was also keeping up a steady barrage of artillery and mortar fire from Sampur and Mutur East.
On September 2, the LTTE counter attacked at Pattiaddy, forcing the government forces to go back to earlier positions in Selvanagar and Thoppur.
The fighting was continuous except on August 31 and September 3, but by then, the LTTE had removed its artillery from Sampur to safer places in the Vaharai-Verugal area of Batticaloa district, according to Jeyaraj of www.transcurrents.com .
However, the government's objective of driving the LTTE's artillery out of Sampur had been attained.
The government forces' superior fire power, including bombardment from the air, had made the LTTE's continued presence in Sampur untenable.
Bid to take India along
Meanwhile, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government moved on the diplomatic front to secure the support of the international community, including India, for the long and intense military operation using all arms of the armed services including supersonic fighter-bombers and the deadly Multi-Barrel Rocket Lauchers (MBRLs).
While in London last week, President Rajapaksa met the British Prime Minister Tony Blair and explained to him the need to take Sampur among other things.
The President sent his brother and advisor, Basil Rajapaksa, to New Delhi to explain to the Indian authorities the critical importance of securing Sampur, the loss of which had severely threatened the Trincomalee harbour.
Trincomalee is critical for India because India has 100 giant oil tanks near by in the China Bay area.
India hopes to use the tanks for storage and bunkering in the future. It also plans to build a lube plant there at a cost of several million dollars.
Heavy casualties and displacement of civilians
However, the Sampur operations have resulted in very heavy casualties on both sides, because of very heavy air and artillery bombardment.
According to existing estimates, the LTTE has lost 40 to 50 cadres and the army about 70.
But the humanitarian tragedy is much greater.
About 12 villages in Sampur had been reportedly flattened, and an estimated 45,000 families, mostly Tamils, had fled the area to safer places in Batticaloa district.
There are no private or government relief agencies working in these areas because of the continuous fighting.
Given the killing of 17 local workers of the French agency "Action Against Hunger" in Mutur in the first week of August, international aid agencies have refused to work in the Sri Lankan war-zone, demanding credible assurances of security from the Sri Lankan government.