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Sri Lankan Armed Forces Press Tamil Tigers

[Wall Street Journal, Thursday, 15 January 2009 19:49 No Comment]

Sri Lankan armed forces have surrounded a shrinking number of Tamil Tiger rebels in the northeast corner of the country in a bid to crush their separatist movement and end Asia’s longest-running civil war.


On Thursday, the army built on recent advances, taking control of a makeshift airstrip used by Tamil Tiger aircraft in recent bombing raids. The military also captured a village about 12 miles from the rebel stronghold Mullaittivu, according to Brig. V.U.B. Nanayakkara, spokesman for the Sri Lankan military.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE — the force that has been fighting more than a quarter-century for a separate Tamil state — now appeared confined to a 372-square-mile wedge just below the Jaffna peninsula. The army is trying to finish off an estimated 1,600 or so remaining Tiger fighters, the spokesman added, compared with about 15,000 in 2006, the year peace talks collapsed.


"It won’t take much more time," he said.


But while the end of a conventional military campaign is within sight, few expect the fighting to stop completely, and many observers continue to call for a political as well as a military solution.

The Tamil Tigers have long deployed suicide bombers, remote-control bombs and assassins throughout the country. Their retreat doesn’t appear to have ended their ability to carry out guerrilla attacks to advance political goals. Late last month, a suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber killed eight people at a market outside the capital of Colombo. All told, an estimated 70,000 have been killed since the fighting began in 1983.

Critics of the government say its fixation on armed force has alienated many Tamils, making it increasingly difficult to resolve the long-simmering conflict.


"The military is capturing territory it has lost, but the government isn’t coming up with a political solution," said Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, a Sri Lankan politician who leads a group of pro-Tamil Tiger parliamentarians. "We have to develop a political solution."


Sri Lankan leaders argue that a military victory against the rebels must precede a lasting peace. On Thursday, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to restore democracy in newly controlled areas and assuage grievances of Tamils, who complain of being abused and marginalized by the country’s ethnic majority, the Sinhalese.


"We are not against the Tamil people. We are against terrorists," the president told a group of journalists. "We must understand that this country belongs to the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims and all communities, who have equal rights as citizens of this country, and we will work to safeguard these rights."


The Sri Lankan military campaign, however, has coincided with brutal attacks against government critics, particularly in the media. Last week, unidentified armed men shot dead Lasantha Wickramatunga, a newspaper editor known for his critical exposés of the government. Assailants also attacked a private television station, detonating explosives inside a studio. A foreign ministry official said the government is still investigating the attacks.


The fighting in northern Sri Lanka has displaced hundreds of thousands of the Tamil minority, about 18% of the country’s population, leaving them jobless, bitter and ripe for LTTE conscription.


Yet the Tamil Tigers have also come under fire for their abuse of their own minority—who speak their own language and are mostly Hindu, with some hewing to Christian and other faiths. The rebels recruit children to fight, bomb civilian targets and kill political opponents — including Tamils, according to Human Rights Watch. "The LTTE has brutally and systematically abused the Tamil population on whose behalf they claim to fight," it said in a December report.


The U.S. is among the foreign governments that have declared the LTTE a terrorist organization, but it has also urged a political solution to the conflict. Intermittent peace negotiations — brokered by foreign diplomats — haven’t ended the fighting.


In recent weeks, the government’s military campaign has made significant strides. Troops recently captured Kilinochchi, an administrative center for the Tamil Tigers, and seized Elephant Pass, a key point of access to the Jaffna Peninsula. On Wednesday, the Sri Lankan army captured more than 100 rebel boats, as well as earth-moving equipment used to construct defense bunkers, according to Brig. Nanayakkara, the military spokesman.

[Full Coverage]

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