Colombo, February 3:

The Sri Lankan army said today it had captured an elaborate underground bunker complex believed to have been the home of the leader of the Tamil Tigers as well as the rebels’ last jungle airstrip.

Soldiers seized the facilities amid a fresh escalation of fighting in the northeast, where government troops are pressing on with an all-out assault on the remaining patch of jungle held by the ethnic guerrillas.

The renewed fighting came as the government said the battle against the cornered Tigers was at a “decisive stage” and that it could not guarantee the security of tens of thousands of civilians trapped in rebel-held territory.

The captured two-storey-deep bunker had sound-proof electricity generators, air conditioning and medical supplies and was hidden in a coconut grove in Mullaittivu district, the defence ministry said.

It described the site as the “main LTTE hideout” and “a major residential site” of rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Pictures released by the defence ministry purported to show that Prabhakaran had left behind a stuffed Tiger, a paintball gun and a bottle of cognac. At least 20 guerrillas were killed trying to defend the facility and another 12 rebels died in other clashes on Monday, the ministry said.

The whereabouts of Prabhakaran, 54, are not known, but Sri Lanka’s military has said the Tiger chief may have already fled the island by boat.

Also captured was what is believed to be the last of several jungle airstrips used by the Tamil Tigers to launch air strikes across the island, the defence ministry said.

The two-kilometre long runway and hangar for light aircraft was seized by troops advancing on the village of Thirivilaru in Mullaittivu district. No aircraft were found, but search operations were underway, a military official added. The Tigers are believed to have five Czech-built Zlin-143 aircraft, smuggled onto the island in pieces and re-assembled. The guerrillas last launched an air attack early in September.