Tamil Tigers continue to chew away at army's morale

Tamil Tigers had long been braced against an attack by the Sri Lankan army on their rebel base at Kilinochi. And when the army offensive, backed by warplanes, began late last month, the Tamil rebels fought back with deadly effect, knowing that if they lost Kilinochi town, they would have nowhere left to go but the jungle.

The rebels erected bunkers and dug watery trenches along the rice paddies, and when the Sri Lankan troops rumbled into the northern outskirts of Kilinochi, the soldiers encountered a hellish barrage of mortars, rockets and machine-gun fire. A military spokesman claimed that nearly 70 soldiers have been killed in the battle for Kilinochi, which has become bogged down to a deadly crawl as the soldiers dodge the bullets and flying shrapnel exploding in the rice fields and marshes.

The Tamil Tigers have admitted to losing 51 defenders in Kilinochi, and through their London office the rebels yesterday claimed that more than 30 Tamil civilians were killed in bombing runs and shelling by Sri Lankan forces. The Tamil Tigers called for "international intervention" to stop the Sri Lankan government's "mass slaughter of the Tamil people".

However, the Sri Lankan army is in no mood to halt itsassault on Kilinochi. During the night of 16 July, the Tamil Tigers over-ran an army camp at Mullaitvu, in the north-east, slaughtering more than1,400 soldiers. Only a dozen men survived; some jumped down a well, others shimmied up coconut trees and clung there in fright until reinforcements arrived five days later. That was the army's worst disaster in its 13-year war against Tamil separatists. But then, on 24 July, the Tamil Tigers reportedly struck again: two bombs exploded on a Colombo train during rush hour, killing at least 70 commuters and injuring 450 others. After these attacks, the army set out to capture Kilinochi, not only for strategic reasons but to restore its battered morale.

Meanwhile, international aid workers have expressed concern for thousands of Tamil refugees who may be trapped in the fighting. More than 200,000 Tamil refugees were huddled around Kilinochi, made homeless by the battles earlier this year on the Jaffna peninsula.

Many refugees have fled into the jungle or run to villages outside the battle zone. But aid workers are worried that the recent offensive has cut off refugees' food and medicine supplies. The Tamil Tigers accuse the government of blocking an aid convoy of about 120 lorries which was trying to reach Tamil refugees inside the rebel-controlled areas.

Even if the Tamil chief, Velupillai Prabkharan, and his Black Tiger suicide squads, are forced to surrender their jungle fortress of Kilinochi, the civil war is far from finished. The well-disciplined and heavily-armed Tigers are a lethal enemy and the government's isolated bases along the eastern coast are easy prey. Yesterday, Tamil Sea Tigers rocketed a Philippine freighter docked north of Trincomalee port.

President Chandrika Kum- aratunga, elected on her promise of bringing peace between the minority Tamils and the Sinhalese, now faces a political battle in Colombo, the capital. Several Tamil parties are now threatening to withdraw support unless she resumes talks "without pre-conditions" with the Tigers. But after the Mullaitivu massacre, Mrs Kumaratunga is being urged by her generals not to re-start peace talks with the Tigers -broken off by the rebel chief, Mr Prabhkharan, in April 1995 - until Kilinochi falls.

Mrs Kumaratunga has slashed back food and agriculture subsidies to pay for the war - and it may be her undoing. Although Colombo and the island's south have been largely isolated from the war, the latest onslaught against the Tamil rebels is crippling the economy.