Tamil suicide squads strike back against army bunkers

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The Independent Online
After calmly letting 12,000 Sri Lankan troops advance unimpeded into their territory for five days, Tamil rebels swarmed out of their trenches before dawn yesterday and attacked the newly-captured government positions.

Both sides suffered heavy casualties as troops and Tamils fought hand-to-hand on the Jaffna peninsula of northern Sri Lanka. Military spokesmen in Colombo claimed 25 soldiers were killed and 45 others wounded when rebel suicide squads using explosives launched attacks on freshly-built bunkers. Tamil Tigers also shot down one of the impoverished Sri Lankan government's few military aircraft, as it was climbing into the sky after a bombing run.

Civilian casualties have also been high. Jaffna hospital reported that more than 3,000 wounded were being attended by a lone surgeon. That did not include the 174 injured yesterday after the rebels counter- attacked. One aid worker said that the latest injured could include Tamil guerrillas: "It's so difficult to tell, since many of the Tamil Tigers are teenagers, just boys and girls."

Describing the Jaffna hospital as "a veritable hell", Bishop S Jebanesan from the Church of South India said: "The injured are all over, sharing beds, on the corridors and veranda. If you can find some doctors, please send them to me." The Red Cross sent extra medical teams into the conflict by ship; fighting has cut land routes to the peninsula.

More than 200,000 Tamils have fled the invading forces. Until the rebels' counter- offensive, the government troops had advanced within six miles of Jaffna, a heavily- fortified city ruled by the Tigers. But as one aid worker explained, "You have tens of thousands of Tamils running scared in different directions. Nobody knows where to go that's safe. People are hiding in schools and churches."

Even churches no longer afford sanctuary. The Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, is opening an investigation into how a Roman Catholic church was bombed on the outskirts of Jaffna, killing 65 people cowering inside. It was hit on Sunday by a government warplane.

Relief agencies were assured by military chiefs in Colombo that the army would never intentionally target civilian areas. "But they also say that it's a war zone, and if civilians are around they could get hit," one foreign diplomat said.

The government offensive is the first to be launched by Ms Kumaratunga since the Tamil rebels broke off a six-month truce, the longest in this savage, 13-year ethnic war which has left more than 30,000 dead. In the new offensive Sri Lankan troops have so far captured more than 36 square miles. The army's declared goal is to "liberate" all the territory held by the rebels.

The military is reportedly poised for a flanking attack on the eastern side of Jaffna, sweeping up from bases at Elephant Pass and Ponneryn. Until now, troops have pierced into Tamil territory only from the east, launching their assault from a military airbase at Pilaly.

A Jaffna daily put out by the rebels described the government's offensive as "a disastrous idea" and added: "We won't be forced into peace talks."