The Tamil Tigers are waging their "final battle" and it won't take long for Sri Lanka's dragging Tamil insurgency to finally end, say military commanders in Elephant Pass.
"It is a matter of time, may be a matter of weeks. We are very confident about it," said Brigadier Shavendra Silva, general officer commanding of the army's 58 Division, which has taken back vast tracts of land from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during months of fighting.
The captured territory is spread from the north-western Mannar district up to Pooneryn and Paranthan in the north.
"We see light at the end of the tunnel. The LTTE is fighting its final battle and it will be a matter of time before we defeat them completely," said Colonel Aruna Wanniarachchi of the 57 Division, which captured the town of Kilinochchi Jan 2. Kilinochchi was the LTTE's political hub.
Briefing a group of journalists flown to the battle-zone from Colombo, the commanders said that the guerrillas had lost the conventional fighting capability due to a string of defeats at the hands of the army.
Citing intercepted LTTE communication, they said that the group's senior leaders like Theepan, Banu and Vellavan were overseeing the fighting against the advancing troops with "the remaining cadres and whatever resources left with them".
Refusing to set a definite time frame for a military victory, they said the high concentration of displaced civilians in areas held by the LTTE in Mullaitivu, the only district still with the Tigers, was a major impediment for the troops.
"We are very cautious about the civilian presence there. We have already declared a safe zone for them to move to but the LTTE is not allowing them to go there," Brig. Shavendra Silva said, charging that the rebels were using the civilians as human shield.
It was in Kilinochchi that the LTTE had its own police force, courts, banks and a so-called tax regime for nearly a decade, giving an impression to an outsider that a separate state was in the making.
Today, Sri Lankan soldiers patrol the roads of Kilinochchi and guard all strategic points. They look relaxed although exchanges of artillery fire can be heard a few miles away.
"Do not worry. The fighting is taking over 15 km from here," said Maj. Vijitha Hettiarachchi who took the journalists to show the LTTE's formerly showpiece Peace Secretariat building, which hosted many foreign visitors when the Norwegian-brokered February 2002 truce was in operation.
"The artillery gun fire you hear is what we fire from here to the Vishwamadhu areas where fierce fighting is taking place at the moment," Maj. Hettiarachchi told IANS.
As he spoke, he pointed out the place where the LTTE's former political wing head, S.P. Thamilselvan, was killed in an air raid in November 2007.
The LTTE had built concrete underground bunkers close to their offices and buildings for their leaders to hide during aerial attacks.
Military officials said this indicated that the LTTE had anticipated and was preparing for another war even as they took part in the peace process, which began in 2002 and began crumbling from about 2004.
Almost every building along the Jaffna-Kandy highway that passes through Kilinochchi, about 350 km north of Colombo, bears battle scars, indicating how tough the battle for the town was.
Almost all the buildings have had their roofs blown off. Some buildings are in rubble. The main water tank of Kilinochchi has been flattened.
A soldier who drove an Indian-built Mahindra and Mahindra jeep we were in said the LTTE razed the water tank before fleeing.
The military also now controls the Elephant Pass, the narrow isthmus to the northern Jaffna peninsula that was retaken by the military only a few days after the capture of Kilinochchi.
The LTTE captured the Elephant Pass in April 2000 and it was then considered a major success for the rebels.
The military has now deployed a new unit - Task Force VII in the area. Its commander, Colonel Roshan Seneviratne, said the main task given to his troops was "to ensure that there was no infiltration from the eastern end" -- a small tip of land on the eastern coastal belt.
The capture of the 100-acre garrison at the Elephant Pass saw the rebels lose dominance over Sri Lanka's north. They now hold only a chunk of area between the fareast of Kilinochchi and the jungles of Mullaitivu.
It is for the first time in 23 long years that the government has secured full control of the 325-km-long Jaffna-Kandy route. As long as the LTTE controlled the highway, Colombo was forced to send crucial supplies to the troops in Jaffna by air or sea, making it a costly operation.
Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, who led the media team from Colombo, said that although the road is used for the movement of troops, it was not immediately possible to open it for public use.
"Although the road is usable, the mine-fields on either side have to be cleared before it is opened to the public. It will take some time," said he.
Clearing mines in Kilinochchi is no easy task. There could also be lethal booby traps in abandoned buildings and huts and on the wayside.
The troops are mounting pressure on the rebels in Mullaitivu. Despite shrinking territories, the Tigers are still offering stiff resistance. With the war entering the final phase, the coming weeks are going be crucial.