The long drawn out civil war in Sri Lanka has reached a crucial phase with reports of the fighting spirit of the Tamil Tigers said to be at an "all time low" after the fall of two of their strongholds even as government troops march in on the rebels' political capital Kilinochchi.
The troops last week captured the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) bastions of Pooneryn and Mankulam which they had held for a decade.
Retired navy commander and chief of defence staff (CDS) Admiral Daya Sandagiri said the capture of Pooneryn "has virtually neutralized the LTTE threat to the troops stationed in the Jaffna peninsula while the capture of Mankulam has mounted pressure on the LTTE.
"The capture of Pooneryn has now given the military the necessary land route access to Jaffna. Such a land route is vital for ongoing military operation in terms of logistic supply and casualty evacuation," Admiral Sandagiri told IANS.
Citing battlefront reports, he said the fighting spirit among the LTTE cadres after the fall of Pooneryn and Mankulam "was at an all-time low, affecting their fighting morale and efficiency".
According to Admiral Sandagiri, LTTE chief "(Velupillai) Prabhakaran believes in fighting, nothing but fighting. He cannot deviate from his original stand. The LTTE is still left with some striking capabilities, but such capabilities are badly insufficient to halt or reverse the current military successes and progresses".
According to analysts, losing their strategic strongholds of Pooneryn in the western coast and Mankulam in southern end of areas under its control nearly after a decade has been a major blow to the LTTE, although they have moved their military resources, including heavy weapons, to safer locations.
Mankulam is located on the highway that connects the Sri Lankan mainland to Jaffna in the island's northern tip. Pooneryn is the last major LTTE naval point on the western coastal belt, from where the rebels in the past have used their long-range artillery and mortar guns to fire at military targets in Jaffna peninsula.
After gaining control of the entire western coastal belt of over 80 km from the northwestern district of Mannar up to Pooneryn, the troops, backed by artillery and aerial bombardment, are now trying to advance towards Kilinochchi town, 350 km north of here, from various directions, despite heavy LTTE resistance and the monsoon showers.
The LTTE, fighting for a quarter century to carve out a separate state in the northeast, is facing a critical situation militarily at a time when it is preparing to commemorate its fallen cadres in the third week of November.
The week-long event ends with an annual speech by LTTE leader Prabhakaran, who will turn 54 Nov 26. His speech, usually setting out the outfit's plans for the next year, largely carries political significance and is closely monitored locally and internationally.
Commenting on the LTTE's fighting capability, Dharmalingham Siddharthan, the head of the ex-militant People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), said that it was "very difficult to judge the LTTE's fighting ability at a time like this".
"Still I believe that they have about 3,000 battle-hardened cadres. One cannot expect them to give up so easily, although the fall of Kilinochchi, their political capital, is very imminent. It could even happen before Prabhakaran's 54th birthday," former MP Siddharathan told IANS.
He, however, said that the government troops "taking upper hand militarily will leave the (Mahinda) Rajapaksa government with no option but to come out with a political solution acceptable to all the communities sooner than later".
Siddharathan said that successive Sri Lankan governments "have made the LTTE an excuse and failed to come out with a just political solution.
"Their excuse has been that the LTTE would never settle for a political solution within a united Sri Lanka and the LTTE has also been proving them correct.
"The fall of Kilinochchi will virtually shrink the LTTE-held areas and confine them to the jungle district of Mullaitivu. With international pressure, mainly from India, the government has to come out with a reasonable and lasting political solution, adequately addressing the prolonging Tamil national question," he said.
The weeks ahead are going to be crucial for Sri Lanka both politically and militarily.