Sri Lanka has said that it has not yet taken a decision whether or not to hand over Tamil Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran to India if he is caught alive by its troops, who are currently approaching the last major rebel bastions in the jungle district of Mullaitivu.
According to a local media report, defence spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella has said Colombo would consider the matter seriously if India was to make an official request for Prabhakaran's extradition, but stressed that a final decision would be taken in line with the international and diplomatic relations with its neighbours.
"Prabhakaran's future will be based on international conventions like the Geneva Convention etc., and our diplomatic relations with other countries. It is basically a diplomatic matter and will be handled that way," the Daily Mirror newspaper on Monday quoted Rambukwella as saying.
Sri Lanka's reaction has come a day after India's ruling Congress party spokesman Veerappa Moily had demanded that Sri Lanka extradite the LTTE chief if he is nabbed during the Sri Lankan military offensive, to be tried for his links with the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
"He is an assassin and we would be happy if he was extradited to India. We want him to be prosecuted and convicted in India for the grave crime he committed," Moily had told reporters in India on Saturday.
The elusive rebel leader, who founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976, is known to have deep and seemingly secure underground caves and bunkers in the dense forests of Mullaitivu, from where he oversaw the war against Indian troops in Sri Lanka's northeast in 1987-90.
Confident after retaking the LTTE's main politico-administrative town of Kilinochchi two days ago, the troops, backed by armour, artillery and aerial bombardment on Sunday forced their way into the strategically important Oddusuddan township, lying ahead of Mullaitivu town.
Sri Lanka's defence ministry said that the strategically vital Oddusuddan junction located along the Mankulam-Mullaitivu (A-34) main highway had been used by the LTTE "for their administrative and logistic purposes as it has direct route access towards Mullaitivu, Puthukkudiyiruppu, Mankulam and Nedunkerni".
Speaking to visiting reporters in the former rebels' political hub, Sri Lankan army's 57 Division Commander Major General Jagath Dias vowed on Sunday that his men "will not rest until they hunt down Prabhakaran in the Mullaitivu jungles".
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, said the capture of Kilinohchi "is the unparalleled victory of the entire nation" and urged the rebels to surrender with their heavy weapons.
President Rajapaksa last week threatened to outlaw the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist group if it did not allow Tamils living in its control to move to government-held areas with the beginning of 2009.
Minister Rambukwella has confirmed reports that a ban on the LTTE was being seriously considered and was likely to be taken up for discussion by the cabinet this week.
There was no immediate word from the LTTE, which has been fighting against the Sri Lankan government for a quarter century to carve out a separate state for Tamils in the northern and eastern parts of the island.