Sri Lanka's Civil War Could End Soon

After nearly three decades of fighting, the Sri Lankan government is convinced Asia's longest-running civil war could soon be over.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in this battle between the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Government officials told ABC News that they are on the verge of crushing the remaining rebel forces in and around Mullaittivu in the northeast part of the country, where the majority of Tamils live.

They say the fighting has reached a climax in recent weeks.

"The war will be over very soon," said Keheliya Rambukwella, government spokesman for national security and defense. "We believe [the rebels] are left with only 1,000 or 500 forces at the most."

The rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have been fighting since 1983 to secure a separate homeland for the ethnic minority Hindu Tamils, whom they believe are treated like second-class citizens in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist Sinhalese government has strongly denied this claim.

Despite a "war free zone" created by the government, hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured during this final push as the Sri Lankan military closed in on the rebels in the north of the country.

Aid agencies said 250,000 people are trapped inside the battle zone, and concern for their safety has grown.

The government ended a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire agreement in January 2008 and has been waging a steady war with the Tamils ever since.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has said hundreds have been killed or wounded in fighting since last week.

"There is no cease-fire. We have given notice to the LTTE that Sri Lankan citizens whom they are forcibly keeping in the war zone must be let go," Disaster and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said in a press conference.

On Thursday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a statement that the government promised safe passage to all civilians, and he urged the Liberation Tigers to let them go within 48 hours.

Sri Lankan and international officials have criticized the conduct of both sides in this conflict.

"You've got to be careful about the lives of the Sri Lankan citizens who are caught in the middle of the Sri Lankan military. How are they going to save them? That is the question that is worrying us," said Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party, the opposition party in Sri Lanka's parliament.

The rebels have been accused of hitting "soft" targets, such as buses filled with schoolchildren, to bring attention to their cause.

They are credited with the grim invention of the suicide vest -- a legacy of this conflict that has been copied all around the world with devestating consequences.

But the tactics of the Sri Lankan military have also been harshly criticized, particularly during this latest offensive, though it has no intention of stopping what it says is the final push.

"If you give up at this point at this time ... a greater calamity will take place," said Rambukwella.

Despite the government's claim of near victory, few here see an end to this 25-year conflict any time soon. The Tigers are known for their determination.

"The government and the army ... they are capturing the territories and they are hoisting the lion flag and the national flag," said Kandiah Premachanbran, an MP from Jaffna, home of the Tamils. But the rebels have retreated and are not defeated, he said.

"They are very much capable to strike in this country at any time. This will continue, this guerilla war will continue for another 10-15 years," he predicted.

Before the war began, Sri Lanka had one of the strongest economies in South Asia. The war changed that. Now more than 25 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. The beautiful island nation's strongest industry, tourism, is struggling. A room at the one the country's well-respected five-star hotels can cost less than $100 a day.

"There are a hell of a lot of problems that are coming from the economic areas, inflation is very high, uncontrollable, depreciation of the dollar, pegged onto the rupee artificially … all of them are contributing to an economic crisis," said Ravi Karunayake Colombo district leader of the UNP.

Critics say that the Sri Lankan government has been too focused on the war and not focused enough on addressing the basic needs of its citizens.

"Look at the economy. Look at the democracy that is there. Look at the human rights that are there. The cost of living is unbearable," said Karunayake. "Sri Lanka must be integrated to the world."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.