Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tightening the noose

Sri Lanka claims it's closing in on Tamil Tiger stronghold

Amid fierce fighting in recent days, the military says it will soon take the rebel base and, within months, end one of Asia's longest-running conflicts.

By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 29, 2008

Terrorism and Security Update

The Sri Lankan government claims it is on the verge of wiping out the Tamil Tigers' last rebel stronghold. If it's right, Sri Lanka could at last see the end of a long-running conflict that has left some 70,000 people dead.

The claims come amid fierce fighting in and near the Tigers' base in Kilinochchi on the northern tip of the island, where government airplanes are pounding rebel positions as ground troops slowly tighten the noose.

Numerous media noted that the military's claims could not be independently verified. Both the government and the rebels often make exaggerated claims, the Associated Press (AP) noted.

A top Sri Lankan military official told the BBC Friday the government had won ground, sea, and air superiority over the rebels, and that victory was at hand.

Said Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa:

"Our numbers are very much greater than theirs, our firepower is much greater. We are very confident we can win and we want to finish this very soon."...

After a ceasefire fighting resumed in earnest in mid-2006 and Sri Lanka's military ejected the Tigers from the East.

Attention then turned to territory controlled in the north by the rebels, who want a separate state for the ethnic Tamil minority.

In recent months troops have advanced rapidly, and Mr Rajapaksa, who is the brother of Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa, said they are now 4.5km (2.8 miles) from the rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi.

The Tigers administer areas under their control from the town.

The government bars most journalists from areas where the fighting is taking place and the military's accounts cannot be independently verified.

The Colombo Page, a Sri Lankan daily, reported that government forces had seized a key road in Kilinochchi after a fierce, seven-hour gun battle. Eighteen Tamil Tigers were killed there and in other fighting Sunday, with many more injured, the paper said.

The paper also reported that Sunday marked the government-set deadline for international relief groups to leave the conflict zone.

United Press International (UPI) reported that the Sri Lankan military claimed it had killed a total of 62 militants and lost three of its own in the weekend's ground battles and airstrikes.

The National Post interviewed Sri Lankan military officials on the front lines of the conflict, who said the Tigers’ days as a serious military threat are numbered.

The Sri Lankan conflict is one of the world's longest-running insurgencies. An entire generation has never lived in times of peace. Newspaper articles about the latest bombings no longer even make the front pages of the country's dailies. "We have to somehow or other sort out this problem," says the general, who has slicked-down black hair, a moustache and three rows of ribbons on his uniform. "That is our aim. We want to finish it altogether."

Another military official interviewed in the article said he expected the Tamil Tigers to be wiped out within a year. However, the official, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, acknowledged that the going would be tough, and that de-mining Tiger-held areas could take decades.

The guerrillas' central problem is manpower, he says. During the current phase of the civil war, the Sri Lankan forces have killed 8,000 rebel fighters in the north and 2,000 in the East, while another 1,000 have been killed in air strikes, he says.

According to the army's calculations, that leaves the Tigers with no more than 4,000 remaining cadres, while the Sri Lankan forces have 250,000 men and women, and plenty of weaponry.

"So it's a matter of time," Lt.-Gen. Fonseka says.

But the Tigers are well-armed; they have ammunition, artillery, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, multi-barreled rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons and mines. "Every inch is booby-trapped in the jungle. De-mining those areas will take minimum 20 years," he says.

Suicide bombings – a feature of the Tamil insurgency since its start – also continue. The AP reported that a suspected suicide bomber killed one civilian and wounded eight others in an attack on a police vehicle in a northern Sri Lankan town Sunday.

Rebel officials could not be reached for comment, but the insurgents have made suicide bombings a hallmark of their 25-year struggle against the government to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils.

The rebels, banned as a terrorist group in the United States and European Union, are said to have carried out more than 240 suicide bombings against military, political, and economic targets.

In its last report on the conflict in February, the International Crisis Group accused both sides of increasing human rights abuses, warned of a looming humanitarian disaster, and questioned whether the Sri Lankan government could solve the problem of Tamil militancy through military means alone.

Even assuming the Tigers can be defeated militarily, it remains unclear how the government would pacify and control the large Tamil-speaking areas in the north that have been under LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil] domination for a decade or more....

The much touted "liberation" of the Eastern Province has failed to bring development or democracy; instead it has been characterised by military rule and rising ethnic tensions.

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