By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Colombo
Most ethnic Tamil civilians have now left the war zone
The ceasefire declaration by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and its immediate rejection by the government have emphasised the starkness of the situation in which the guerrilla group finds itself, 37 years after first taking up arms for the cause of a Tamil homeland and 26 years after the start of all-out war.
Masters of communication, the Tigers were quick to disseminate their message to journalists all over Colombo and overseas, too.
But to many it seemed like a cry of desperation from the losing side.
With no government reciprocation, there can be no immediate improvement in the dire situation of the civilians trapped in the Tamil Tigers' area.
The only alternative for the Tigers would seem to be surrender, but they have vowed never to do that.
The balance of evidence is that their most senior leaders are still inside the war zone, which would make surrender less likely.
The Tigers' declaration, though perhaps forced by military circumstance, may also have been influenced by the unfolding diplomatic situation.
It came hours after the arrival in Sri Lanka of the UN's Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes.
He says he will press for the government to let a humanitarian team into the small conflict zone to assess the needs of the trapped civilians.
The Tigers' communique said they welcomed the UN's current initiatives on this score.
So this organisation, which is outlawed as a terrorist group by many countries, is trying to show some sort of alignment with the calls from the UN and Western countries at this point, in contrast to the Sri Lankan government which is constantly rejecting the chorus of international calls for a halt in its offensive.
This is not the first time the Tigers have declared their readiness for a ceasefire in recent months.
But in its unilateral nature, this went further than the last two, which were earlier in April and in February.
On those two occasions they said they were ready for a permanent ceasefire which should be followed by talks on the difficulties faced by Sri Lanka's Tamil minority.
But in April, they actually dismissed the government's two-day pause in its fighting, calling it an "act of hoodwinking".
The government's position is that the war is nearly over and it is therefore determined to press on and achieve complete victory.
It says, too, that such a continuation is the only way of securing the freedom of the trapped people, whom it describes as hostages whom it is rescuing from the Tigers' clutches.
The "no ceasefire" position is popular among the country's Sinhalese majority, which constitutes about three-quarters of the population.
It has also been bolstered by this weekend's council elections for the province that includes the capital, Colombo.
President Rajapaksa's governing coalition secured an increased majority in a vote which most analysts said was mainly about the war.
"The president believed in himself and in wiping out terrorism," a government spokesman was quoted as saying. "And the people have also placed their belief in him."
But many Tamils, marginalised by successive governments, see things very differently.
There is widespread international concern that victory for the Sri Lankan military will not simply mean that the island will live happily ever after in peace and harmony.
Legacy of hatred
There are deep ethnic fault lines in Sri Lankan society and even some of the pro-government media voice qualms.
"The Eelam War as we have known it for the past 25 years or more is drawing to a close," says the Nation on Sunday.
"Whether that will signal the beginning of an era of political tolerance that will bring equality to all communities in this country is an entirely different question and that is an issue that the government of the day will have to address with the same zeal and earnestness with which they prosecuted the war against the LTTE."
These weeks and months of bitter fighting will have done nothing to alter those fault lines.
As the war goes on, there is a bitter propaganda battle in progress.
The Tamil Tigers have stepped up their denunciation of the government, accusing it of deliberately withholding food and medical supplies from the conflict zone and bringing the threat of starvation to the civilians inside.
The Sri Lankan government and pro-government media accuse the Tigers of keeping Tamil civilians as hostages and murdering people trying to flee their control, including little children.
On Sunday, Tamil pressure groups overseas alleged there had been dozens of aerial bomb attacks launched by the government on civilian settlements.
The United States, incidentally, alleges that the government is shelling the zone of confrontation.
But the government says it is using no heavy armaments and causing no civilian casualties.
Whatever Tamils feel about the LTTE, many do not trust the Sri Lankan state to guarantee their dignity and human rights.
There is complete disparity of information and a lot of hatred in Sri Lankan society that will be difficult to heal.