Kilinochchi: Sri Lanka's feared Tamil Tigers leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is still holed up in a coastal strip in the north and has told his cadres that he will fight on, an army commander said on Friday.
Quoting the confession of a Tiger leader who surrendered two days ago, Brigadier Shavendra Silva told reporters that the cream of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was also with the elusive Prabhakaran in Mullaitivu district.
Brig Silva said Daya Master, a former media LTTE spokesman, had told military officers that Prabhakaran, 54, had personally told his fighters that he will be with them "till the last moment".
According to Daya Master, key LTTE leaders who were giving the rebel chief company included Soosai, who heads the now battered Sea Tigers, the intelligence unit leader Pottu Amman and military strategist Bhanu.
Brig Silva, who heads the 58 Division of the Sri Lanka Army, said troops had virtually surrounded a 10-12 sq km area that was still with the LTTE but quickly added that the place was teeming with Tamil civilians.
This, he said, was bound to slow down the military advance, which until now had been rapid throughout Sri Lanka's north, dealing solid blows to the insurgent group that many had thought could never be vanquished.
"I also feel Prabhakaran is inside that area," Brig Silva told reporters from Colombo in a building that was earlier the LTTE's political headquarters and is now the operational hub of the 58 Division.
"Prabhakaran is not the type of man who lives on the surface," the brigadier said. "I am sure he will be living underground."
He quoted Daya Master as also saying that Prabhakaran could try to escape at the last moment "somehow or the other", perhaps through the sea.
But the military commander said the chance of that happening was "very remote".
Prabhakaran, who has led the violent Tamil separatist campaign since founding the LTTE in 1976, has in the past vowed never to be taken alive by the enemy.
Like all LTTE fighters, he is known to wear a cyanide vial around his neck, to be bitten to avoid capture.
Brig Silva said an estimated 106,000 Tamil civilians - men, women and children - had so far fled the LTTE zone and taken shelter in military-held areas.
The brigadier said he did not know how many more civilians were still with the Tigers.
But because of fears for their safety, an issue that has raised widespread international concern, the military offensive would henceforth slow down, he said.
According to the military, the LTTE was still putting up resistance, firing away 122 mm artillery.
"The LTTE is firing but we are not retaliating because of fears that we will hit the civilians," said Brig Silva. "At least 15 soldiers were killed and about 75 injured during the past four or five days due to LTTE artillery fire."
"We don't mind spending more time to recapture the entire area," he said.