For the first time in more than a decade, government forces are making inroads into rebel strongholds and are within striking distance of their capital, according to military officials who insist an end to Asia's longest civil war is near.
Such forecasts are nothing new for this 25-year conflict between the military and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (more commonly known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers). While some observers say it's still too soon to talk of total victory, there's little dispute that the latest army offensive has forced the guerrillas to abandon large parts of their de facto state and given the government unprecedented momentum. An international crackdown on rebel fundraising and smuggling networks and high-level defections have also undermined grassroots support for the Tigers' iron-willed chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, most analysts agree.
"There is no denying that as far as ongoing positional warfare is concerned, it is a case of advantage army and that the LTTE is being relentlessly forced to fall back from previously held positions," D.B.S. Jeyaraj, a veteran military analyst, wrote on transcurrents.com, a Sri Lankan Web site that covers the war.
Government military push
Since January, when it scrapped a Norway-brokered cease-fire and vowed to crush the Tigers by the end of 2008, the government has poured $1.5 billion dollars into an all-out, multiple-front offensive that has killed about 6,000 rebels and reduced their last stronghold in the island's northern Wanni region by nearly 75 percent, according to the ministry of defense.
The military onslaught, however, has displaced 145,000 Tamils and could soar above 200,000 in the coming weeks, according to the United Nations. The world organization said relief supplies are running "dangerously low" and called for both sides to allow safe passage for civilians and aid workers.
The defense ministry says military gains began in June, when government forces seized the strategic Mannar Peninsula. In July, they overran a Tiger naval facility and four more key bases. The army is now attempting to seal off the northwest coast to cut a vital Tiger weapons supply line from southern India, while simultaneously driving up the eastern flank.
The military says it is within 7 miles of Kilinochchi, the Tigers' de facto capital and nerve center, where Prabhakaran is believed to be hiding in an underground bunker. Fierce clashes are expected, as hundreds of Tigers' elite forces are said to be dug in awaiting a final siege.
After taking back the Jaffna Peninsula in 1995, the northernmost part of the island, the army made few gains. This changed after Col. Karuna Amman, the Tigers' eastern commander, broke off from the group in 2004, taking 6,000 fighters with him. Amman says he left after Prabhakaran failed to pursue a political solution and favored northern Tamils over eastern Tamils, who, he claims, do most of the fighting. His departure slashed the Tigers' fighting strength by 60 percent to fewer than 5,000 fighters. By July, the Tigers were ousted from the eastern province.
The Tigers are also hurting financially.
A July 2007 report by Jane's Intelligence Review said that at their peak the Tigers have raised as much as $300 million a year - 90 percent from abroad - making them the second-richest guerrilla group after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
But a worldwide dragnet led by the United States and the international police organization, Interpol, on fundraising and arms smuggling has seriously hurt the Tigers, which are listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. Dozens of Tiger financiers and arms merchants have been arrested in the United States, Canada, Europe and India, according to press reports.
Last April, New York police arrested Karunakaran Kandasamy, the Tigers' alleged U.S. fundraising director. He has been charged with operating a front organization that held several fundraising events at a church and public schools. And in June, the World Tamil Movement, a Toronto nonprofit group, wired more than $3 million to overseas bank accounts linked to the Tigers before its operations were shut down by the Canadian government for alleged terrorist financing, according to a report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
A joint India-Sri Lanka naval blockade of the Palk Strait waterway that separates the two countries has further diminished the flow of arms, provisions and materiels according to several analysts.
To be sure, some defense analysts say that the current offensive has yet to encounter the full weight of a Tiger response and that claims of imminent victory are premature. Last week, Tiger rebels launched an air raid and a ground assault on the Vavuniya military complex, according to press reports. It was the first major rebel attack in government-held areas since the beginning of the government offensive. A Tiger spokesman said the rebels destroyed a radar station, arms depots, a communications tower and facility, and anti-aircraft guns.
"It's still possible the Tigers are allowing the army to come into their territory before launching counterattacks," said Sunil Jayasiri, a defense columnist for the Daily Mirror in Colombo.
The Tigers "must have something up their sleeve," added a Colombo defense specialist who asked not to be named because of fear of government reprisals. He speculated the rebels still have thousands of hardened fighters and possibly chemical weapons. "They are very crafty and have given up territory in the past to draw the army in and then strike back hard."
Guerilla war possible
But even if the Tigers are defeated as a conventional fighting force, experts say, there is a consensus that it could regroup in remote jungle areas to wage a protracted guerrilla war.
This would mean a greater reliance on suicide and hit-and-run attacks to "bomb themselves back onto the agenda," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo think tank.
Despite the dogged military effort, Saravanamuttu says the conflict will end only after Tamil discontent is addressed in earnest.
"The LTTE has always played for the long haul," he said. "The only thing that can bring about a conclusion to the bloodshed is a political solution that cuts the ground from under their feet."
Velupillai Prabhakaran - enigmatic Tamil Tiger leader
The Tamil Tigers' 53-year-old leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is credited with turning the rebel organization into one of the world's most disciplined and motivated guerrilla forces.
Tiger rebels and Prabhakaran are known to wear cyanide capsules around their necks in case of capture. And in a rare interview, Prabhakaran told reporters that he has instructed his soldiers to kill him if he ever compromises on the goal of attaining an independent state the Tamils call Eelam.
In 1975, Prabhakaran was accused of murdering the mayor of Jaffna - one of the first political killings by a Tamil nationalist. He then retreated to the northern jungles to fight for a Tamil homeland.
To his critics, he is an egomaniac with a penchant for violence that leaves no room for a political solution. Amnesty International has accused the Tigers of using child soldiers and resorting to forced recruitment. To his supporters, he is a freedom fighter, battling for Tamil emancipation from Sinhalese repression.
But few would dispute that he is a master tactician who has been involved in every facet of his movement's development, whether designing the rebels' flag and striped uniforms or creating the only air force controlled by an organization deemed terrorist.
His hands-on commitment is said to inspire near-absolute loyalty among his 5,000 forces, including women and child soldiers. This is especially true for the so-called Black Tigers, who are selected to carry out suicide and other high-risk attacks. The rebel chief makes a point of dining with each of them on the eve of their mission.
The Tamil Tigers
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, were formed in 1983 after decades of marginalization by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority, which passed laws favoring the Sinhala language and Buddhist religion. The Tamils speak Tamil and are mostly Hindus.
Since 1983, the Tigers have fought for an independent state in Sri Lanka's northern and eastern provinces. The rebels are listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department and the European Union.
In 1987, India sent peacekeepers, who left in 1990 after suffering heavy casualties and being accused of human rights violations in fighting Tamil rebels.
In 1991, Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tiger suicide bomber, a tactic that the Tigers have pioneered and used hundreds of times. Two years later, a Tiger suicide bomber killed Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa during a political rally.
In 2002, a truce mediated by Norway brought a temporary end to hostilities. But it proved hollow after the Tigers and the military committed numerous cease-fire violations and the Tigers withdrew from peace talks.
In 2005, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse was elected, running on a hard-line platform against the Tigers. Two years later, government forces have regained control of the eastern province, a long-time Tiger stronghold, and are on the offensive to win back the northern province. Officials have reiterated a pledge to crush the guerrillas by the end of the year.
Since the civil war began, an estimated 70,000 people have been killed. The Tamils currently comprise nearly 10 percent of the nation's 21 million people.