Scores of women and children fighters were killed in the worst defeat for Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels in 12 years of civil war, it emerged yesterday.
The carnage, allegedly caused by the betrayal of plans for an attack on government bases, has cast new light on the methods of the separatist movement.
The Tigers admitted yesterday that 128 of about 180 fighters killed in an abortive attack on four army bases last Friday were women. But pictures released by the Sri Lankan army showed dead children lying in rows and the military authorities accused the guerrillas of sacrificing young boys and girls in the front line.
Bodies littered beaches in the north-east of the island, according to state radio, after Navy patrol craft and the air force sank 15 "Sea Tiger" boats full of attackers. Some reports said almost 500 of the 3,000 attackers were killed, for the loss of only two on the government side. "There were young girls and boys in large numbers," a military spokesman, Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe, said. "There is no respect for human life on their side. We can't sacrifice human lives like that."
The Tigers claimed that a traitor had been responsible for the disaster, but made no comment on the fact that the heavy loss of life showed the extreme youth of many of their fighters. The movement knows the earlier it recruits its followers, the easier it is to instill the slavish loyalty demanded of them. Its rarely-seen leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is surrounded by young commandos who carry suicide pills in case of capture.
The Tigers are known for their use of suicide bombers, most of whom are women. Rajiv Gandhi, the former Indian prime minister, was killed near Madras in 1991 when a woman bowed before him and set off explosives strapped round her waist. The army claimed at least three women in Friday's attack were blown to pieces when bullets hit explosives attached to them.
Until April, the Tigers had been engaged in six months of peace talks with President Chandrika Kumaratunga's government over its demands for a Tamil homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Although the prospects for peace appeared better than at almost any time during more than a decade of fighting, which has taken more than 50,000 lives, it appeared that Mr Prabhakaran and the inner Tiger circle refused to countenance any easing of their iron control over their strongholds, where they long ago eliminated anyone else claiming to speak for their community.
The fact that someone was prepared to betray the Tigers may show that its leadership is no longer monolithic and that some members do not share Mr Prabhakaran's intransigence. The debacle for the movement could not have come at a better time for Mrs Kumaratunga, who has continued to negotiate with other Tamil groups.
Proposals to give the north and east a considerable degree of autonomy were leaked last week. The apparent motive was to test the reaction of hardliners in the majority Sinhalese community and the government's military success is likely to have appeased their fears.