Sri Lankans celebrated the fall of the Tamil Tigers’ de facto capital with street parties, but military observers say bloodier battles may still lie ahead as the rebels take refuge in the jungles.
The guerrillas, fighting for an independent homeland for Tamils, suffered a massive blow on Friday when they lost Kilinochchi, their political headquarters, in a concerted government offensive that lasted nearly two years.
But that does not mean the rebellion is dead, experts say.
"The fighting is far from over," said Susantha Seneviratne, a defence analyst for the Lankadeepa newspaper. "The bigger battles may yet to be fought. The Tigers can return to classic guerrilla counter-offensives."
Seneviratne said the Tigers, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), may have already prepared their defences in the northern jungle district of Mullaittivu, their final bastion.
"The thick green canopy favours the Tigers and they know the area better than anyone else," Seneviratne said, adding that the military’s long-range weapons and air cover may be less effective in the Mullaittivu jungles.
The defence ministry on Saturday announced that troops were already heading to Mullaittivu, where the Tigers have shifted their political offices after the fall of Kilinochchi.
Tamil militant-turned-politician Dharmalingam Sithadthan agreed the capture of Kilinochchi was not the end of the island’s drawn-out separatist conflict, but said it did mark a decisive phase in the military campaign.
"This is certainly not the end of the war," Sithadthan said. "We can say this is the beginning of the end of the LTTE if the military can repeat their Kilinochchi success in Mullaittivu too."
Sithadthan said it would be difficult for the Tigers to win back the military balance of power, but they could still carry out trademark suicide bombings to keep security forces — and the wider population — on edge.