By C. Bryson Hull
MULLAITTIVU, Sri Lanka, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s military battled for the last territory held by the separatist Tamil Tigers on Tuesday, as fears grew for the safety of hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the war zone.
The army seized the last major town the rebels controlled, the northeastern port of Mullaittivu, on Sunday aiming to strike a death blow to an insurgency that at 25 years is one of Asia’s longest-running.
Fighting still raged nearby the port town on Tuesday. Journalists on a military-guided field tour of the deserted town could hear outgoing heavy weapons fire as well as what sounded like exchanges of small arms fire less than a kilometre (half a mile) away.
Earlier on Tuesday Brigadier Nanda Udawatte had said: "Mortar fire, indirect fire, close quarter battles are going on in 1.5 km (about a mile) from Puthukkudiyiruppu," another town in the vicinity. Udawatte had led the capture of Mullaittivu.
On Tuesday some soldiers were posted along the port town’s beach as guards, while others patrolled the city and some took pictures of colleagues.
In the centre of town, a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) memorial hall with colourful portrayals of rebel fighters and Tiger symbols stood across the street from a government centre that had continued to be staffed by a civilian representative of Colombo during the Tiger occupation.
On the way into Mullaittivu the road passed through one of several large earthen barriers that had guarded the town.
"This is the first one and we had to fight for a week or so. We captured it on Dec. 27," said Colonel Aruna Arusinghe, commander of the 591 Brigade.
"We suffered a fair amount of casualties, and then we changed our tactics," he told reporters, saying the army outflanked the barriers to attack the Tigers from behind them.
Buildings in the town showed some damage from small arms fire, but there were few signs of heavy shelling.
DOGS, COWS AND NO CIVILIANS
Palm trees, marshes and scrubland dominated the surrounding terrain. Some dogs and cows could be seen in the trash-littered streets of the town, but no civilians.
Both sides have traded charges over casualties among the 230,000 people aid agencies say are caught in just 300 square km (around 115 square miles) of jungle in the Indian Ocean island’s northeast.
With the loss of Mullaittivu the Tigers no longer control any major town and are confined to a handful of jungle bases and villages, raising questions as to whether their days as a conventional fighting force are over.
The Tigers have vowed they will not surrender and leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran in his annual speech last year said the army was "in a dreamland" if it thought it would win.
Human rights watchdogs and the government accuse the LTTE -- designated a terrorist group by India, the United States and the European Union -- of keeping civilians in its territory to force them to act as fighters, battlefield labourers or human shields.
The Tigers, with most communication in the war zone cut off, could not be reached for comment. They have denied such allegations in the past.
On Monday, the United Nations in Sri Lanka said dozens of people had been killed or wounded over the weekend in shelling from sources it could not identify.
The pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com said there were fears as many as 300 had been killed in shelling on Monday inside a no-fire zone the military announced last week, quoting what it said were eyewitnesses.
"Unattended bodies and injured people unable to move are lying around everywhere, while a remaining doctor fled," the website said.
The military has repeatedly denied firing into the no-fire zone, while accusing the rebels of moving armaments into the area and shooting into the safe zone.
It is impossible to get a clear picture of what is happening inside the conflict area, since independent media are rarely permitted there by either side.
The LTTE say they are the sole representatives of the Tamil minority, which complains of mistreatment by successive governments led by the Sinhalese ethnic majority since independence from Britain in 1948. (For a related SCENARIOS analysis, see [ID:nCOL417940]. See [ID:nCOL392859] for a related TIMELINE) (Editing by Jerry Norton)