SL Prez invites UN chief

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's president has invited UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to visit the island and assess first-hand the plight of civilians affected by fighting with Tamil rebels, his office said Wednesday.

President Mahinda Rajapakse, under pressure over allegations that his troops have been shelling civilian areas, spoke to Ban on Tuesday evening.

News of the invitation comes after the island state's prime minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, said on Tuesday that Tamil rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is trapped in a small strip of coastline that has been surrounded by government soldiers.

Wickremanayake told parliament that Prabhakaran, 54, was still leading his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters in their desperate battle for survival against an overwhelming military offensive.

"We have information that Prabhakaran is still in a four-square kilometre (1.5 square mile) area in Mullaittivu," Wickremanayake said.

He added that the guerrillas were fighting back against government troops with a large arsenal of weapons that they had stockpiled.

Prabhakaran has not been seen for more than 18 months, and speculation has been rife that he may have been killed or already fled the island.

Sri Lanka's navy has increased patrols off the Mullaittivu coast to stop him escaping, and Malaysia and India have been alerted to be on the lookout.

With victory apparently imminent, President Mahinda Rajapakse has said he wants the Tiger leader -- one of the world's most notorious rebel fighters -- to be taken alive.

Government soldiers trying to end Prabhakaran's 37-year, violent campaign for an independent Tamil homeland have attacked the final patch of rebel-held territory from a new direction.

"Troops commenced advancing northwards from the initial forward defences at Wadduvakal," the defence ministry said Tuesday, adding that the guerrillas were putting up stiff resistance.

Recent military attacks into the territory have been from the north.

The ministry said troops were progressing with "utmost restraint" to prevent deaths among tens of thousands of civilians being held hostage by the Tigers.

"Terrorists have suffered heavy beating from the security forces and are now left in total disarray," the ministry said. It gave no details of casualties in the latest fighting.

Wickremanayake repeated the government's stance that it would not ease its military action until the separatists were completely wiped out.

"The government will under no circumstances enter into a ceasefire even though there is mounting international pressure to have a halt in the offensive and save Prabhakaran," he said.

The United Nations, which says thousands of non-combatants have been killed in fighting this year, has led calls for Sri Lankan leaders to agree to a ceasefire to prevent further bloodshed.

A landmine blast blamed on Tamil Tigers in the south of the island Tuesday killed one civilian and wounded several others, the military said.