In Sri Lanka's 13-year civil war between the government and ethnic Tamils, rebel commanders usually send their feared Black Tigers in the first assault wave. Nurtured for martyrdom by relentless Tamil propaganda and commando training, the kamikaze teenagers are only too ready to sacrifice themselves.
Their favourite tactic is to defy enemy gunfire and crash a lorry packed with explosives into a Sri Lankan army garrison. But this failed disastrously yesterday, when rebels tried to recapture mortar positions which had been overrun on the previous night by 7,500 troops on the northern Jaffna peninsula. Instead of bunching, the Sri Lankan forces spread out on the south-eastern side of Jaffna peninsula, denying the suicide squads any identifiable targets.
Confused, the Black Tigers fell prey to the entrenched Sri Lankan gunners. In two days of battle, nearly 300 Tamil rebels were killed, many of them in hand-to-hand combat. Government sources said only 63 soldiers died while repelling the rebel attack. The army fatalities were so low, explained one official spokesman, because they outnumbered the enemy by seven to one.
With this victory, the Sri Lankan forces have at last cleared away Tamil mortars which pounded their airstrip at Palaly, the main military base on the Jaffna peninsula. The rebels control the remainder of this tongue of land.
From their Jaffna stronghold, the Tigers have extended their reach into the northern and eastern regions but since a cease-fire broke down six months ago, Sri Lankan forces have been winning it back.
The Tigers' radio, monitored in Colombo, claimed yesterday that over 50,000 Tamil civilians had fled the military's assault. Officials put the number far lower. The Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, said that the Tigers would be defeated by the year's end. "The government is not going to slow down or abandon the war, but it will be fought to a finish within the next two or three months."
Diplomats dismiss this forecast as overly optimistic, if not impossible. More than 500,000 Tamils live in Jaffna city, and any siege would cause heavy casualties. Even if the Tigers lose Jaffna, they are well-armed, fanatical, and have camps and ammunition caches in the northern jungles. They have also infiltrated mainland India.
The strategy used by the president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, is to use military power to drag the Tigers back to peace talks. But as the Sri Lankan forces near Jaffna, diplomats and opposition politicians are worried that an all-out attack might succeed only in convincing the Tamils that they can never make peace.