Tamils close in for final advance on key air base

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In Sri Lanka's northern Jaffna peninsula, a decisive military result may be only days away. The advancing rebel soldiers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are still 45km from Jaffna city, home to most of the peninsula's 600,000 civilians, all of them ethnic Tamils. But they are only a few kilometres from Balaly, the Sri Lankan government's only air base on the peninsula.

If the government troops are forced to withdraw from their present forward position, Balaly will come within the rebels' artillery range. Then the government's only realistic option for supplying the 27,000 troops holed up in the peninsula - let alone evacuating them, should the decision be taken to try to do that - would be lost.

The Sri Lankan government is now running out of options. So, squashed into a corner, with the clock a minute or two before midnight, it is hurriedly trying to manufacture some new ones. On Thursday, diplomatic relations were suddenly renewed with Israel, after a 30-year hiatus. There is talk of Israel being asked to supply not only precision bomber aircraft but also the pilots to fly them. State radio on Thursday announced the arrival of a Russian delegation. Sri Lanka in the past bought arms and aircraft from the Soviet Union.

The government in Colombo put the island nation on a full war footing on Wednesday for the first time in its 52-year history. Censorship of reporting of the 18-year civil war has long been in place, and it is many years since journalists were last allowed to report from the battle zone. The restrictions imposed from midnight on Wednesday under the Public Security Act expanded controls to cover political and economic news, too. All foreign journalists in Sri Lanka are now obliged to submit their copy to the state censor before filing.

In the Jaffna peninsula, both the government and the rebels reported a lull in the fighting. Since overrunning Elephant Pass two weeks ago, the Tigers have been roaring forward at the rate of one kilometre per day, but they have now paused to consolidate and perhaps to consider strategy. The morale of government forces has improved since the government announced that it would not surrender Jaffna, and that it was "satisfied" with the response to requests it had made to friendly countries for help, said a senior military official.

But that is all very vague. India, which sent troops to shore up the government in what turned out to be a disastrous initiative in 1987, has flatly denied it will offer similar help this time around. "We would not go down the same road," Jaswant Singh, the Foreign Minister, told parliament in Delhi on Thursday. The Indian government, sensitive to the feelings of its ethnic Tamil coalition partners, even ruled out supplying arms.

With friends like these, the Sri Lankan government may yet be forced to negotiate with the Tigers on the worst imaginable terms if it wishes to save its troops. And it may have only about four days to make up its mind.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said yesterday she was concerned that the military conflict in Sri Lanka could lead to a fresh flight of people.

"Recent developments in Sri Lanka are cause for great concern," said Sadako Ogata. "If the military action moves westwards it might cause civilian movement."

She said there were no plans yet to withdraw her agency's representatives from Jaffna. "In fact there have been requests for reinforcements."