The Tamil Tigers closed in on Jaffna in the far north of Sri Lanka yesterday, claiming to have taken two towns on the outskirts and to be on the verge of recapturing the city from government troops.
The rebels said they were now only 1km from the administrative centre of Jaffna, having overrun the military garrisons at Kovilakandy and Thanankillappu.
The Sri Lankan Air Force responded by bombing rebel positions, including Thanankillappu, Ariyalai and Pooneryen.
The Sri Lankan government raised taxes to aid the war effort for the second day running, and banned live broadcast of news and current affairs programmes on issues of national security.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam guerrillas have fought for a Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island for 17 years. Their aim is to take Jaffna city, which has a population of about 500,000. They controlled the city and most of the rest of the peninsula from 1990 to 1995. If they succeed in driving the government forces out, it will be the most crushing victory they have achieved in the conflict. Aid agencies expressed concern yesterday for the fate of the civilian population of the region.
According to Voice of Tiger radio, the advancing rebels warned Sri Lankan soldiers to surrender or withdraw. The report added that many Sri Lankan soldiers had been killed and that several hundred civilians had fled from the area of the fighting.
In Colombo, the government released film of reinforcements arriving in Jaffna, and of scenes of everyday life proceeding placidly - shot before the latest assault on the city. It claimed that more than 70 rebels had been killed in recent fighting and that troops were standing firm and repelling repeated rebel attacks. The Tigers claimed to have killed more than 30 Sri Lankan soldiers and to have wounded 200.
The government denied rumours that the Tigers had attacked the army's airbase at Palaly, 35 Km north of Jaffna. It said 96 Tiger rebels and 35 troops had been killed in the heavy fighting during the previous 11 hours. The government also attempted to tighten its efforts to censor the bad news, banning live broadcasts and requiring all media reports to be cleared by the censor.
As the fighting in Sri Lanka's north intensified, the Indian Prime Minister, AB Vajpayee, once more ruled out military intervention even if Jaffna falls into the hands of the Tigers.
A Norwegian peace envoy has been trying to draw India into peace initiatives on the island. But Erik Solheim emerged from meetings with officials in Delhi with a downbeat message.
"We do not believe in any quick fixes to the conflict in Sri Lanka," he said. "It cannot be solved in a day or a week, our efforts will go on."
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