COLOMBO - Shelling killed a Red Cross worker inside Sri Lanka's war zone on Wednesday, the aid agency said, while troops and the Tamil Tigers battled in an intensifying fight to the finish of Asia's longest modern war.

The pro-rebel web site, and a government-employed doctor in the war zone whose personal security is at the whim of the Tigers, said at least 38 people were killed in an attack on a makeshift medical clinic.

The military called the report fabricated.

The seeming inevitability of a final, bloody confrontation has grown amid Western outrage over attacks that killed hundreds at the weekend and which aid agencies said was making it impossible to help those people still being held by the Tigers.

Analysts and diplomats said the end of voting in India's month-long election on Wednesday was likely to usher in an all-out attack by Sri Lanka to wipe out the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and bring a conventional end to a 25-year war.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), for days unable to ferry out wounded and deliver aid by boat because of fighting, said a 31-year-old local staff member and his mother were killed by a shell.

The ICRC is the only foreign aid agency inside the war zone.

Spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne did not say who fired the shell.


Two senior military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said small-arms battles were picking up in the 2.5 square km (1 sq mile) coastal strip where the Tigers are cornered. Those sources said no heavy weapons were being used.

Later, TamilNet reported at least 38 people were killed in shelling. A government doctor whom the military says is in the thrall of the LTTE said the toll was higher.

Two shells fell into the hospital compound at 1 p.m. and 50 people were killed and more than 60 people got injured including patients, their relatives, our staff and volunteers, Doctor Thurairajah Varatharajah said by telephone.

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara called the report an LTTE attempt to gain sympathy and avoid total defeat.

Again, it is a fabricated story. These are locations where LTTE cadres are getting treatment. Yesterday we went into a place where we were given coordinates, saying it was a hospital. When we went inside, we found it had been used by LTTE, he said.

It is impossible to verify battlefield accounts, since the war is mostly off-limits to outsiders and both sides have distorted events to their advantage since it erupted full-scale in 1983. The LTTE wants a separate state for minority Tamils.

The military says it has not used heavy weapons in months, while the LTTE has accused them of doing so repeatedly. The United Nations and others have accused the two sides of harming civilians, which both deny.

Troops punching into the fast-shrinking area found a 55-foot boat rigged up with 1,500 kg (3,307 lb) of explosives and a host of spare parts and navigation gear buried and believed to be part of the LTTE's small air wing, the military said.

Sri Lanka's war has become a delicate election issue for India's ruling Congress party in the swing state of Tamil Nadu, home to 60 million Tamils across the Palk Strait where the LTTE was incubated and still commands support.

I think the war was slowed down because India's politicians requested that to save some embarrassment for the ruling party in Delhi, said Col. R. Hariharan, the former intelligence head for the Indian Army's 1987-1990 peacekeeping mission in Sri Lanka.

A diplomat in Colombo, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: This is it. After the election, they will go full-blast. Unfortunately, I think it will only make reconciliation harder.