Kilinochchi: Sri Lankan troops consolidating their positions in this former LTTE stronghold have vowed to continue their fierce offensive campaign till they hunt down the elusive rebel chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Two days after the battle-hardened soldiers seized Kilinochchi, a town the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had controlled over for 10 long years, the army is busy consolidating its control over the sprawling area.
A group of reporters and photographers flown to the town from Colombo saw soldiers clearing minefields laid by the fleeing LTTE cadres.
Other soldiers, army officials said, were in pursuit of the guerrillas, who have retreated into their last bastion, Mullaitivu district in the Sri Lankan north.
V Prabhakaran, who founded the 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.
Clearing mines in Kilinochchi is no easy task. The soldiers go about it slowly and methodically. There are also lethal booby traps that need to be removed from abandoned buildings, huts and the wayside.
The remains of damaged, bullet-riddled and still standing buildings along the winding highway here that links Jaffna in the north to the rest of Sri Lanka tell the story of how intense the battle for Kilinochchi was.
Fighting went on for months for control of Kilinochchi, a strategically located town that for years served as the political hub and administrative capital of the LTTE's Tamil controlled region.
The LTTE controlled region has shrunk and shrunk as a rejuvenated Sri Lankan army has hit back, first capturing the entire eastern province in 2007 and then inching its way ahead in the north.
Reporters visiting Kilinochchi courtesy the defence ministry met a group of 22 civilians who had sought refuge at a government hospital.
Gobalasingham Thureshika, 17, told reporters that she and her seven-member family were among the Kilinochchi residents who were all ordered by the rebels to vacate the town a few days ago.
"We were told to vacate the Kilinochchi town by the LTTE cadres towards Mullaitivu. We also left the town along with others, but were hiding in the nearby jungle shrubs instead of proceeding towards Mullaitivu, because we do not want to leave our home," Thureshika said.
Breakfast was served near an earthen bund built by the LTTE at Murukandy, where a revered temple for Hindu god Ganesh is located. The bund was meant to slow down the advancing military.
But the impediment failed to prevent the army from capturing the town, sparking celebrations across a country that has bled from a quarter century old war.
As the reporters proceeded after the breakfast, they could hear intermittent gunfire and artillery barrages far away from Kilinochchi town.
The army's 57 Division Commander, Major General Jagath Dias, told the journalists in a semi-built building at Akkarayankulam, another former LTTE stronghold, that his men "will not rest until they hunt down Prabhakaran in the Mullaitivu jungles".
"Our future operations against the LTTE in the north would be launched from Kilinochchi. We are taking the battles to the Mullaitivu jungles and will hunt him down," he said.
It was the troops of Major General Dais who first entered the town limits of Kilinochchi, where Prabhakaran addressed his last press conference way back in April 2002 - just two months after the LTTE and Colombo signed a Norway-sponsored and now dead ceasefire agreement.
Sri Lankan 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".
Troops advancing from various directions towards Kilinochchi, 350 km north of Colombo, seized the well-fortified rebel base after earlier taking townships such as Paranthan and Iranaimadu.
"This is not only the victory against the LTTE, but the resounding victory against the global war against terrorism," Rajapaksa said, making the final call to the LTTE to surrender with their heavy weapons.
The soldiers here seem to agree wholeheartedly with the Sri lankan president.