Sri Lanka's President on Sunday urged Tamil Tiger rebels to surrender to avoid a complete rout as the military claimed to have killed at least 420 guerrillas in fresh fighting.
President Mahinda Rajapakse told party supporters at his tightly-guarded Temple Trees residence in Colombo that security forces were about to finish off Tamil Tigers in the island's northeast after decades of bitter fighting.
"The option for the Tiger leadership is to lay down arms and surrender and save the lives of the remaining cadres," the president said.
President Rajapakse, who is also the commander in chief of the armed forces, has rejected calls for a truce and insisted that the Tigers must lay down arms and allow civilians in areas still under their control to get to safety.
His latest call came as the army said it killed over 420 Tamil Tiger rebels in intense fighting in the past three days and were about to launch a fresh drive to free some tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone.
Sri Lankan forces won control of the village of Puthukkudiriruppu where the bodies of 250 rebels were found on Sunday alone, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
There was no immediate comment from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who have admitted losing territory to advancing government forces in the coastal district of Mullaittivu.
The rebels were "now facing total annihilation as the soldiers are engaged in man-to-man combat against them in the last terror pocket," the defence ministry said, adding that the rebels had lost their "last stronghold."
The Tigers have been encircled for months in a small area of jungle by troops who appear close to ending the separatists' armed campaign which has raged since 1972.
"We have recovered 420 bodies in the past three days," Nanayakkara said as he announced that the Tigers had now been pushed into a 20-square kilometre (eight square mile) no-fire zone designated by the government.
Government officials had believed less than 500 rebels fighters were still in action before the latest casualty figures.
"The Tigers don't have much ground now. They are in the safe zone that we declared and in the periphery," Nanayakkara said, adding that security forces had suffered slight casualties during the battles.
Tens of thousands of civilians would soon be rescued from the no-fire zone, army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka was quoted as telling the state-run Sunday Observer.
Concern for the non-combatants trapped in the conflict has mounted, with international calls for a pause in the fighting to allow them to escape, but the government has refused to consider any truce until the rebels surrender.
The United Nations recently reminded Sri Lankan leaders of their "responsibility to protect civilians, and to avoid the use of heavy weapons in areas where there are civilians."
At the height of the Tigers' power in the mid-1990s, they controlled more than a third of the total land mass of Sri Lanka in their fight for an independent Tamil homeland.
Sri Lanka, which pulled out of a Norwegian-arranged truce in January last year, has said for months that its forces were on the verge of dealing a final blow to the Tigers.
The battlefield casualty claims are impossible to verify as journalists are not allowed to travel freely in the area.