Sri Lanka's military is poised to capture the leader of the Tamil Tigers and is surging towards his jungle hideout, the defence ministry said yesterday.
Government forces were just 21 kilometres (13 miles) away from achieving their "final goal" of capturing rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, the ministry said, quoting army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka.
He said security forces were attacking Mullaitivu, the northeastern coastal district where the 53-year-old Tamil separatist leader was believed to based, from several fronts.
"The security forces are attacking Mullaitivu, Prabhakaran's hideout, from several directions," Fonseka said. "The army's aim is to capture Prabhakaran -- who is holed up in a bunker -- alive."
He said four divisions of the army would "surge" towards the hideout of Prabhakaran who is wanted in Sri Lanka as well as neighbouring India for the 1991 slaying of former Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi.
"They (troops) have to march forward another 21 kilometres to achieve the final goals," the army chief said adding that security forces had already captured "several hundred square kilometres" from the guerrillas.
It is not the first time in the decades-old conflict that the Sri Lankan authorities have said they were on the verge of capturing or killing Prabhakaran.
The leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has also been reported dead or injured on numerous occasions.
In fresh fighting government forces destroyed two Tamil Tiger rebel bunkers in Sri Lanka's embattled north while infantry clashes killed 13 rebels and two soldiers, the military said Thursday.
The latest round of infantry clashes broke out Wednesday along the front lines bordering the rebels' de facto state, the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
In Mannar district, troops destroyed two rebel bunkers after a clash that killed four guerrilla fighters, while other battles in nearby Vavuniya and Welioya districts left nine rebels and two soldiers dead, the ministry said.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan could not immediately be reached for comment.
It was not possible to independently verify the military's claims because journalists are banned from the northern jungles where much of the fighting takes place.
The infantry clashes came hours after rebels launched a pre-dawn attack on a navy outpost off the coast of Mannar, sparking a battle that killed at least four Tamil Tigers and three sailors.
The military said sailors retaliated, destroying one boat and killing five rebels. Three sailors were killed in the battle, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said on Wednesday.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan disputed that account, saying the raid killed 10 government troops, while four rebels were also killed.
The government pulled out of a Norwegian-brokered truce in January, and says it has killed 4,196 rebels in fighting since the start of the year.
The strength of the LTTE is not clear, but the military said at the beginning of this year that the Tigers had about 3,000 combatants. The figure was later raised to about 5,000 by military authorities.
The government does not allow journalists to freely visit frontline areas.