Nearly 100,000 Tamils were trapped on the northern shore of the Jaffna lagoon yesterday, trying to clamber aboard rowing boats, launches and any floating object to escape a Sri Lankan army attack on the rebel citadel- city of Jaffna.
A government military spokesman said that three divisions, totalling 21,000 men, supported by tanks, artillery and aircraft, had closed to within five miles of Jaffna, the nation's second-largest city.
It has been under the quixotic, revolutionary rule of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas for more than a decade. Relief workers said that many young Tamil recruits had joined the exodus across the lagoon.
Some officers predicted that Jaffna would fall to the Sri Lankan forces within days, but a Tamil Tiger spokesman in Paris claimed that the rebels were mounting a counter-offensive. "Our forces are putting up stiff, ferocious resistance."
In the bloodiest battle so far in the army's two-week offensive, troops on Monday captured Neerveli, a key rebel base five miles from Jaffna. Casualties were high: more than 90 soldiers and 204 Tamil guerrillas were killed before the Tigers pulled back, dragging their dying and wounded towards Jaffna, the army said.
Aid workers in Jaffna spoke of a "calamitous" humanitarian tragedy, with as many as 300,000 Tamil civilians trapped with nowhere safe to run.
The capture of Jaffna would be a severe blow to the Tigers but not a fatal one. The Tamils have run the Jaffna peninsula as a separate state, with their own traffic police, schools, tax collectors, postmen and judges. If Jaffna falls, the Tigers are expected to melt away into the dense jungles across the wide lagoon.
The military command claimed that the Tigers' chief, Velupillai Prabakharan, has already slipped off the peninsula and may be hiding at a jungle rebel base in the Kilinochchi or Mullaitivu areas.
India would like to see the rebel chief caught, too, and may be helping the Sri Lankans with intelligence and supplies.
The Indians accused the Tamil rebel of ordering the 1991 bomb attack which killed Rajiv Gandhi, the former Indian prime minister.
Unless the army seizes or kills the Tamil leader, it is doubtful that they can crush the rebels, even with the conquest of Jaffna. Although many Tamils fear the Tiger chief and his revolutionaries, they fear the Sri Lankan army even more.