AFP - Sri Lankan troops Tuesday battled Tamil Tiger fighters for control of the last stretch of rebel-held coastline, as international fears mounted for civilians caught in the conflict.
Soldiers backed by tanks and air cover fought to capture 30 kilometres (18 miles) of seafront, the only territory still controlled by the retreating rebels, Brigadier Nandana Udawatte told reporters taken to the area.
As the government said its offensive to end the separatists' decades-long campaign was entering its final stages, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep concern over the fate of civilians trapped in the war zone.
At least 145 have been killed and another 650 wounded in fighting during January as Sri Lankan forces made rapid progress against the rebels, local health official T. Satyamurthy told the BBC Sinhala service.
"We don't have any staff or medicine. Security is a major problem, so we can't work properly," Satyamurthy said.
There were no civilians in the bombed-out town of Mullaittivu when journalists were given a tour on Tuesday, two days after troops captured the Tigers' military headquarters and drove the rebels deeper into the jungle.
"We are moving along the coast as well as to the northwest towards another pocket of Tiger resistance," said Udawatte, the commander of the operation to retake the town, which was the last rebel urban stronghold.
Udawatte said his troops had killed more than 2,000 Tamil rebels and wounded nearly 3,000 in the year-long battle for Mullaittivu.
He said the rebels had established three defence lines to protect the town, but his men had surprised them on Sunday by crossing a lagoon by boat.
"We also suffered casualties in overcoming their obstructions," he said. "They had set up a lot of mines to slow our advance."
The defence ministry said clashes between troops and Tamil Tigers continued across the Mullaittivu district.
Battlefield claims from either side cannot be verified as journalists are barred from travelling to the conflict zone on their own.
Sri Lanka's army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka has expressed hopes of defeating the Tiger rebels completely by April.
The whereabouts of rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is not known, but a spokesman for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was reported as saying that he was still in Mullaittivu district and had vowed to fight back.
Sri Lankan commanders had speculated that Prabhakaran had fled the island by sea.
"It is malicious propaganda -- our leader is still with us -- our leader is giving leadership to our freedom struggle. He is with our people," the BBC quoted the Tiger political wing leader B. Nadesan as saying.
The Tigers are widely expected to return to fighting a guerrilla war from hidden jungle bases.
"In a liberation war it is normal for a force to lose territory and regain the same and achieve freedom," Nadesan said. "In the past we have withdrawn many times and bounced back to achieve big victories."
UN chief Ban said he was "deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of civilians caught in intensified fighting."
Neighbouring India sent its foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, to discuss the issue, while the US ambassador Robert Blake urged both sides to "ensure civilians are not caught in crossfire."
Sri Lanka has dismissed charges of widespread civilian deaths, with military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara saying any such claims were part of a "cheap propaganda exercise" by the Tigers.