After a month of fighting the Tamil Tigers, thousands of Sri Lankan troops yesterday advanced into the rebel city of Jaffna. A military spokesman in Colombo, however, said the government forces were one and a half miles from Jaffna's centre and had run into stiff resistance from the Tigers.
Even before the Sri Lankan army began its final assault on Jaffna, this was already a city disfigured by war. Two previous onslaughts against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - first by Sri Lankan forces in 1987 and then by Indian peacekeepers in 1990 - had ravaged the old colonial town.
Shells, bombs and mortar rounds had blown the heads off statues and ripped the wings off stone angels. Churches and once-grand libraries were destroyed; they look like bleached shipwrecks beside the glimmering Jaffna lagoon. Now, Sri Lanka's second-largest city is being convulsed by another round of destruction.
The defence minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, said: "The Tigers are destroying the town, knowing that they will soon lose it to us." Officials claim that over 320 soldiers have died so far in the assault while the rebels have lost more than 1,500 men.
Backed by tanks, artillery barrages and air power, the government troops yesterday captured a key junction at Nallur, a 400-year-old Hindu temple surrounded by houses and coconut groves.
A military spokesman said 24 soldiers were killed along with 145 rebels when the government forces overran the Tamil Tiger bunkers. However, a communique issued by the LTTE claimed that 52 soldiers died in the fighting.
To slow the Sri Lankan advance, the Tiger rebels laid booby-traps so that the houses blew up when soldiers stepped inside. The explosions then allowed the rebels to mortar the oncoming troops with lethal accuracy. Officials said that by yesterday afternoon, the government troops had thrust in, forcing the rebels to flee from the Hindu temple crossroads.
In Colombo, Sri Lankan officials claim that Jaffna may fall within the next 48 hours. But the army's victory may be more symbolic than practical. Apart from the rebels, there may be only one soul left behind in Jaffna: a Catholic bishop who has refused to leave his mission.
The rest of the city's 300,000 inhabitants fled the Sri Lankan offensive and are huddled in refugee camps at the far end of the Jaffna peninsula. The Tigers are trying to prevent Tamil civilians returning to areas now under government control. The "Voice of the Tigers" radio yesterday ordered refugees, hungry and feverish after three weeks of monsoon rains, to flee to the mainland, which is still under control of the Tiger chief, Vellupillai Prabakharan. The rebel strategy is to let the government conquer the land but not its people.
The LTTE is fighting for an independent homeland in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka for the Tamils who are ethnically different from the majority of Sri Lankans, the Sinhalese. Since 1990 the Tigers have ruled Jaffna as a separate country, with their own courts, taxes, schools, postal service and rebel army led by squads of fanatical suicide commandos.
Some of the moderate Tamil parties in Colombo are urging Sri Lanka's President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, to declare a ceasefire against the Tigers, but the generals are counselling her to crush them.
One pro-government daily, The Island, commented yesterday: "The only way out is to de-fang or kill the Tiger." To that end, a reward of a $50,000 (pounds 32,250) reward has been offered for anyone who tells the army where the elusive Mr Prabakharan is hiding.
Vanquishing the Tamil Tigers is not easy, even when the Sri Lankan army conquers Jaffna. As a guerrilla leader, Mr Prabakharan is reckoned to be a brilliant tactician, one who beguiles his commandos - many of them teenaged boys and girls - with propaganda on the nobility of dying in combat.
The Sri Lankan forces are finding out that trying to defeat the Tigers is like trying to hold water in a fist; as the government advances into Jaffna, the Tigers are vanishing into the jungles along the eastern coast.
On Sunday, Tigers attacked an army patrol and killed 38 soldiers near Batticaloa, hundreds of miles from Jaffna.