The Tamil Tigers are poised to recapture Jaffna town in the far north of Sri Lanka today after a devastating assault on government positions yesterday, combining suicide tactics with powerful artillery barrages.
In an assault of massive intensity, Tamil fighters launched wave after wave of suicide attacks to smash government positions at Ariyali, three miles from Jaffna, the biggest town in the Jaffna peninsula. According to the Tigers they also seized a crucial bridge, and cut Highway 9 - the main road linking the far north of Sri Lanka to the south - driving a wedge between government forces.
The Sri Lankan government said the assault began at 3am, two days after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - who are fighting for an independent state in the north and east of the island - offered the government a ceasefire on condition that its troops vacate the peninsula.
The government wasted no time in rejecting the offer, and in parliament yesterday the deputy defence minister, General Anurudha Ratwatte, said: "We will fight till the last man rather than vacate Jaffna."
The end may now be close. The "suicide waves" of infantry, in which lines of young guerrillas, many of them women and children, hurl themselves at the enemy and the lines behind them trample on their fallen bodies, is one of the techniques by which the Tigers have succeeded in destroying the morale of the Sri Lankan army's raw recruits.
Underwritten by an affluent and loyal Tamil diaspora around the world, the Tigers now seriously outgun government troops, as yesterday's artillery bombardment showed. The Sri Lankan government's feverish arms-buying spree of the past fortnight, in which Israeli helicopter gunships were at the top of the shopping list, now appears to have come too late. Likewise the decision to increase taxes to raise $20m (£13m) for the war effort.
What happens now? India, beset by conflicting urges, stands dithering on the sidelines, but the Sri Lankan army's desperate position may now force it to act. India is extremely reluctant to intervene militarily: its attempt to end the conflict by sending in a peace-keeping force 13 years ago ended in humiliation and the assassination by the Tigers of the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. But with 27,000 Sri Lankan troops now at the mercy ofthe Tamil Tigers, India's hand may be forced.
Yesterday there was hectic diplomatic activity in Colombo and Delhi aimed at saving the soldiers' lives. India has a fleet of its transport aircraft ready in south Indian air bases, which can organise the rescue of soldiers if necessary. Indian diplomats in Colombo confirmed that talks were in progress but refused to be drawn on details.
If Jaffna falls, it will be by far the worst humiliation theSri Lankan army has suffered in the 17-year civil war. Even an evacuation of troops may only be possible with the Tigers' permission.