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Story Publication logo August 23, 2008

Fighting Intensifies in Sri Lanka



Sri Lanka is a byword for beauty and tragedy. Even the wholesale devastation of the Asian tsunami...


Fierce fighting has displaced tens of thousands of people in northern Sri Lanka, as government troops advance deeper into the Tamil rebels' last stronghold in an aggressive bid to crush them by the end of the year.

More than 112,000 ethnic Tamils have fled from their homes over the past two months amid daily gunbattles, shelling and air attacks, aid agencies say.

The United Nations estimates the total number of displaced in rebel-held areas is now around 145,000, an unprecedented level in the island nation's long-running conflict.

Officials warn the figure could soar above 200,000 in the weeks ahead.

The government launched an all-out offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in January after abandoning a tattered Norwegian-brokered cease-fire. Since then, nearly 6,000 rebels have been killed and their territory has shrunk by almost 75 percent, according to the Ministry of Defense.

The LTTE, listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department, disputes those figures.

Actual casualties are impossible to independently verify, since reporters are barred from the war zone and aid agencies are heavily restricted, though observers agree the military has made steady gains.

Security forces are currently trying to cut off a critical LTTE sea-supply line along the west coast of the northern Wanni region and simultaneously drive up the eastern flank to surround the political capital of Kilinochchi, where rebel chief Prabakharan is believed to be holed up in an underground bunker complex.

"There is no turning back under any circumstances or influence now until every inch of land is recaptured and each and every terrorist is killed or captured," Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse told a rally this week.

While the military push in the north gathers momentum, the humanitarian crisis there worsens by the day.

Shifting front lines and shelling exchanges have compelled thousands of families to stay on the move to avoid harm´s way, according to the United Nations.

The military has confirmed that artillery barrages along the southern edge of the war zone have made some exit points off-limits, effectively trapping people inside.

In areas where access is permitted, aid agencies are handing out emergency shelter kits and tarpaulins while scouting for additional sites to accommodate the growing masses of displaced.

But aid officials say that tight restrictions on the transport of goods into the region have hamstrung the distribution of food, shelter materials, water and sanitation equipment, and fuel to evacuate civilians.

Ron Redmond, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said last week that relief supplies are running "dangerously low," and he called on both sides to allow for safe passage.

Only a few hundred families have escaped into government-held territory, where they are being held in makeshift camps.

London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International says the camps amount to detention centers, a claim the government rejects.

The LTTE, for its part, is accused of forcibly relocating families into areas around Kilinochchi, presumably to serve as a human shield should troops lay siege to the town.

Pro-Tiger Web sites report that civilians converging around Kilinochchi are "enlisting" in basic military-training programs.

"Both sides to this long conflict have again shown that they will jeopardize the lives of thousands of ordinary people in the pursuit of military objectives," said Yolanda Foster, an Amnesty researcher. "In the absence of independent international monitors, Sri Lankan civilians lack protection and remain at the mercy of two forces with long records of abuse."

An estimated 70,000 people have died on both sides since the LTTE launched an armed struggle in 1972 to carve out a separate state for a marginalized Tamil minority in the island's north and east.

Ethnic Sinhalese account for about 75 percent of the overall population.

In 1995, government forces reclaimed the northern Jaffna Peninsula, and solidified an advantage last July when the LTTE was evicted from the eastern province.

Defense officials then determined they had singular opportunity to finish off the LTTE as an organized fighting force, and vowed to do so by the end of this year.

Their campaign has benefited from some high-level LTTE defections, including that of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan - a child soldier who became Prabakharan´s former deputy, split from the group in 2004 and was elected a provincial chief minister.

A worldwide crackdown on fundraising operations has also weakened the LTTE, which is credited with pioneering the use of suicide bombers and has been called the "most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world" by the FBI.

In recent years, dozens of LTTE financiers and arms smugglers have been arrested by authorities in the United States, Canada, Europe and India.

However, some defense analysts say the current offensive has yet to encounter the full weight of the LTTE and that claims of imminent victory are premature.

The LTTE "must have something up their sleeve," said one Colombo-based observer who asked not to be named, noting that the rebels still have hundreds 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 back strike hard," he added.

Additionally, there is a consensus that even if LTTE is soon broken as a conventional fighting force, 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, as they have done in the past when pressured, to "bomb themselves back onto the agenda," according to Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo.

Security forces in the capital remain on high alert. Armed guards patrol streets littered with barricades and a gauntlet of checkpoints.

Despite the dogged ongoing military effort, Mr. Saravanamuttu said that unrest will not cease until the economic and political deprivations that fuel Tamil discontent are 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."

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