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Tigers at bay but still dangerous

Sri Lanka war: As the army advances on Jaffna, desperate Tamils are hurling children into a final battle
After a fierce night battle against Tamil Tiger guerrillas, Sri Lankan soldiers dragged the bodies of their fallen enemies out of the rice paddies and examined them. To their shock, the soldiers found many of these feared Tamil warriors were only girls, some still children.

The Tamil Tigers are far from defeated, but have lost their aura of invincibility. The sinister, hulking figure of the Tamil guerrilla has been stripped away to reveal a young boy or girl, schooled in arms and martyrdom.

The Tamils may also be on the verge of losing their dream of an independent homeland, Eelam, on the northern tip of Sri Lanka, for which they have fought for almost 13 years. The Tamil Tiger chief, Villupillai Prabakharan, and his force of teenagers are unable to halt the assault by more than 25,000 government troops, backed by tanks and artillery, from pushing within three miles of Jaffna.

"What we are witnessing", one observer in Colombo said, "is kids having to take on the Sri Lankan army in a full-frontal war.''

It is no longer a question of whether the army can conquer the rebel fortress town but when. The rebel chief is thought to be hiding in the jungles south of the Jaffna peninsula.Many of his Tigers are thought to have crossed the lagoons with Mr Prabakharan and to have melted into the jungles.

Only a contingent of rebels has stayed to defend the empty city of Jaffna, and they are busy planting mines and booby-traps in abandoned houses to slow the army's advance by a few days. The capture of Jaffna, although of symbolic importance to the government, may cost it dear.

The dilemma President Chandrika Kumaratunga faces is that once her forces secureJaffna, what will she do with an empty city? She must coax back Jaffna's Tamils. More than 400,000 refugees are huddled in temples, schools and coconut groves about 10 miles away, in Chavakachcheri. They are out of artillery range but are starved and soaked by monsoon rains.

Luring back the Tamils to Jaffna will not be easy, although the government forces have tried to avoid civilian casualties during this two-week offensive. According to official figures, only 50 civilians have been killed, compared with almost 226 soldiers and nearly 1,000 Tiger rebels.

But even those Tamils who yearn to return to their villages fear being seen as traitors. The Tigers have so much support that it is difficult to find a Tamil family without a son or daughter fighting in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). When civilians do drift back, it is inevitable that Tigers will stalk into Jaffna with them and restart the guerrilla war.

Although Sri Lanka has an army larger than Britain's, it is not well equipped or powerful enough to guard the Jaffna peninsula against a guerrilla campaign. "There's a danger the Sri Lankan Army will stretch itself too thin against the LTTE and become very vulnerable," an observer said.

Mrs Kumaratunga was elected President a year ago on a peace ticket, and her campaign posters showed her releasing doves into a heavenly blue sky. Since then she has become a warrior queen, and her popularity among the majority Singhalese remains high. Western diplomats say that Mrs Kumaratunga tried to make peace with the Tigers, but the rebels were shamming.

A three-month cease-fire brokered earlier this year by Mrs Kumaratunga was used by the Tigers used to rearm, train fresh recruits and deploy on the eastern seaboard. On 19 April, Tiger suicide commandos blew up some navy vessels, signalling the truce was over. The President, whose party's majority in parliament depends on only one seat, was criticised by the opposition for being duped by the Tiger chief.

Mrs Kumaratunga, whose Colombo home is guarded against Tamil suicide bombers, says she knows the Tigers' claws cannot be drawn completely. Her aim is to drag the rebels back to the negotiating table. While her army is hitting hard, Mrs Kumaratunga has unveiled plans to give the Tamils, a majority in the north and a sizeable presence in the east, control over their own land, schools and police.

The package may entice war-weary Tamils, but not the LTTE chiefs. Mr Prabakharan has not budged from his demand for an independent Tamil state. Although he has been deprived of income from "revolutionary taxes" and school-ground recruits in Jaffna, the Tigers remain lethal. Even without Jaffna, the army of 10,000 Tigers can launch attacks on the peninsula, along the east coast and in Colombo.

Five children were massacred by Tiger rebels yesterday in a south-eastern village, almost 250 miles from the battle zone. Near Batticaloa, an eastern port, Tigers hacked to death several Singhalese men last week. The Tigers loaded the dismembered bodies - "chopped like fish", one eyewitness said - on to a bullock cart that was sent creaking into a village with its awful cargo.

With slaughters such as these, the Tigers hope to draw government troops from the siege of Jaffna. The Tigers, according to the government, may be trying to provoke the Singhalese into taking revenge againstTamils in Colombo and elsewhere in the south, which the rebels would then use as proof that no peace can be reached with the Singhalese.

To guard against Tamil attacks, which might trigger ethnic riots, Colombo on Thursday ordered schools to close for three months. The capital is braced for terrorism. The war may come to Colombo.