Thousands of Sri Lankan soldiers, backed by tanks, artillery and warplanes, launched a major offensive yesterday against the stronghold of the secessionist Tamil Tigers, in what is seen as a turning point in the 12-year civil war.
However, aid agencies in Colombo expressed fears that many Tamil civilians could be injured if the Sri Lankan forces were to drive deep into the Jaffna peninsula, a long claw-like stretch of land surrounded by lagoons and ocean. More than 700,000 Tamils are living in the area under rebel control, and sources contacted by radio in Jaffna said intense shellfire was hailing down on the city's edge.
An army spokesman, Lt General Gerry de Silva, said: "The operation is to hit them hard on the head and reduce their military capacity so that they can be brought to the negotiating table on our terms."
In Colombo, a small bomb exploded yesterday in a park. No one was injured, but police warned that this might be the first salvo in a bombing campaign by Tamil rebels.
A group calling itself the Ellalan Force said earlier it would be planting bombs in Colombo and warned foreign tourists to leave. "The Tamils in Sri Lanka are being killed by money from your visits," it said. More than 30,000 British tourists visited Sri Lanka last year .
Sri Lankan troops ran into heavy mortar and machine-gun fire as they pushed out from Palaly air base on the western end of the peninsula. At the same time, government troops are thrusting in from the east in a pincer movement. So far, two soldiers have been killed and 46 injured, an army spokesman said. The guerrillas' radio station reported 100 civilian fatalities.
Casualties on both sides are expected to rise once the Sri Lankan army attacks the entrenched positions of the Tamil Tigers, whose leader, Villupillai Prabakharan, had turned the Jaffna peninsula into a fortified, independent state. More than 35,000 people have been killed in Sri Lanka's ethnic war.
Helicopters dropped thousands of leaflets on Jaffna city and surrounding villages warning people of the impending invasion and urging everyone to stay indoors, while army radio broadcast bulletins urged residents to support the soldiers coming to "liberate" them from the rebels. However, the army cannot expect much help from the populace: many Tamils support the Tigers.
The military offensive comes after the Tigers broke off peace talks several months ago with President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Ms Kumaratunga, elected last August by promising peace with the Tamils, had wanted to present a new set of proposals to coax the rebels back into talks. However, she seems to have caved in to army pressure to launch the assault.
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