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Q & A – What next as Sri Lanka strives to end war?

[Reuters, Friday, 6 February 2009 17:53 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s quarter-century war is racing towards an end as the military closes in on the last patch of land the separatist Tamil Tigers control.

 

In the first six weeks of this year, soldiers have racked up a string of victories and taken all the major towns the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had controlled.

 

When hostilities reignited in 2006, the rebels held 15,000 square km (5,792 sq miles). Now, the military says that space is 175 square km (67 sq mile) of jungle with a tiny bit of coast in the Indian Ocean island nation’s northeast.

 

ARE THE TIGERS TOOTHLESS?

 

Many analysts say the LTTE is down to about 2,000 capable fighters and has no future as a conventional force. The army commander, Lt-Gen. Sarath Fonseka, has sent nearly 50,000 troops to surround the Tigers and given an ultimatum: surrender or die. Since the Tigers wear vials of cyanide around their necks in case of capture, surrender seems unlikely.

 

Fonseka has said he expects some hardcore Tigers to go underground and conduct hit-and-run attacks once the war nears its end. He says the army is ready to counter that.

 

WHAT ABOUT THE CIVILIANS?

 

Aid agencies say 250,000 or so mostly Tamil civilians are at risk of grave harm in the war zone. The government says the number is about half of that. The Red Cross says hundreds have been killed in fighting and both sides are trading blame.

 

President Mahinda Rajapaksa this week gave his assurance to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that civilians would be kept safe. The Tigers maintain no Tamil wants to leave them, but have ignored nearly all pleas to let civilians out.

 

The fate of the civilians? Anyone’s guess at this point. Two things to watch for: when the military gets into the no-fire zone it set up, and if the rate of people fleeing spikes dramatically from an average rate of around 1,000 a week.

 

IS INDIA GOING TO INTERVENE?

 

No. Despite protests from Tamil politicians in India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made it clear he has no plans to stop Rajapaksa’s war against a group his country lists as a terrorist organisation. Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee this week reiterated India’s desire to see Tamil political grievances met through negotiation, while the Tigers are dealt with militarily.

 

WILL THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY SEEK ACTION?

 

So far, that seems unlikely unless clamour over civilians reaches a fever pitch and moves are made to push a U.N. Security Council resolution. Diplomats in Colombo say it is noteworthy that Norway, seen by many as close to the LTTE, signed off on a statement with the United States, European Union and Japan that urged the rebels to surrender in the face of imminent defeat.

 

DOES MILITARY SUCCESS MEAN EARLY ELECTIONS?

 

Rajapaksa’s popularity is high and signs of early polls abound: the election budget this year has been quadrupled, three provincial polls are due in the next few months and the main opposition United National Party (UNP) is in campaign mode.

 

Allies say there are plenty of factors that will influence Rajapaksa’s decision on timing. He is aware that the UNP’s main criticism is the state of the $32 billion (21.8 billion pound) economy.

 

AND WHAT ABOUT THE ECONOMY?

 

The Colombo Stock Exchange is up 17 percent this year on what analysts say is a mix of retail bargain-hunting and positive sentiment from the war. It should get another boost from the war’s end, but then wider economic fundamentals are expected to sink in.

 

Sri Lanka suffers from costly short-term foreign debt, a high debt-to-GDP ratio and low foreign exchange reserves, which are under pressure with earnings for tea, tourism and garments hit by the global slowdown. The rupee is being allowed to depreciate gradually, and many see that continuing.

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