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Sri Lankan Soldiers Target Last Territory Held by Tamil Tigers

[Bloomberg, Monday, 5 January 2009 07:30 No Comment]

Sri Lankan fighter jets and helicopters bombed Tamil Tiger bases in the northern district of Mullaitivu, the last stronghold of the rebels, after the army seized their administrative capital, Kilinochchi, last week.


Troops are advancing to Elephant Pass, which lies at the entrance to the Jaffna Peninsula and is controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the government said. Soldiers entered Oddusuddan town yesterday and are 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away from the pass, the Defense Ministry said.


“Whoever controls the pass will control the whole strategic aspect of north and east,” N. Manoharan, senior fellow at the Center for Land Warfare Studies, in New Delhi, said in a telephone interview. “This is very vital.”


The LTTE, which has fought for 26 years for a separate homeland in the north and east of the South Asian island nation, was driven from the eastern region 18 months ago. President Mahinda Rajapaksa three days ago called on Sri Lankans to support the army as it tries to defeat the Tamil Tigers.


Rajapaksa said the fall of Kilinochchi was a victory over “venomous separatism.” The town was captured on Jan. 2 as the rebels pulled back from the area to regroup in the jungles of neighboring Mullaitivu district.


Soldiers are 5 kilometers south of Mullaitivu town and 3 kilometers away from the LTTE’s main airstrip, according to the Defense Ministry. Fighting took place in at least four areas of Mullaitivu district yesterday, it said.


Land Route


If the army wins control of Elephant Pass it will have access to a land route to the Jaffna Peninsula where government troops have bases, Manoharan said.


The LTTE seized Elephant Pass from the military in April 2000 after failing to capture the location in 1991.


“It is going to be the most deadly battle,” Manoharan said. “It will also be the last time the LTTE will be waging a conventional kind of warfare. After this they will be switching over to hit-and-run tactics.”


An estimated 250,000 soldiers are involved in the battle with the rebels, Manoharan said. The military estimates the Tamil Tigers have between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters, though some analysts say the number may be as high as 10,000.


The chances of the LTTE bouncing back are hampered by the loss of battle-hardened leaders such as Balraj, who was instrumental in capturing Elephant Pass, Manoharan said. The flow of arms to the group has been stifled due to a ban by the U.S., the European Union and India, he added. “The LTTE’s aim now will be to spread thin the army across the country.”


The army offensives last year have eroded the civilian base which a guerrilla movement such as the LTTE thrives on, Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council, a Sri Lankan non- governmental advocacy organization, said in a telephone interview from the capital, Colombo.


“The Sri Lankan military is much stronger, larger and more cost-insensitive,” he said. “The LTTE is very much marginalized and on the run internationally.”

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