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SCENARIOS: What’s next for Sri Lanka’s 25-year war?

[Reuters, Tuesday, 24 February 2009 19:06 No Comment]

350.0.1.0.16777215.0.stories.large.2009.02.24.tmmll85012282 Sri Lanka dismissed calls for a truce with the Tamil Tigers on Tuesday, with its soldiers battling for control of the last town held by the separatists just a few kilometers away from the site of an expected final showdown.

Here are some scenarios about what could happen next in one of Asia’s longest-running wars:

 

SHORELINE SHOWDOWN

 

The military has the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) boxed in and is battling to push them west toward a no-fire zone on the island’s northeastern shore. Troops are about 5 km (3 miles) from the lagoon that is the western edge of that zone. Military commanders have told Reuters that most of the LTTE’s commanders are there, including founder and leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran. That 12-km strip of land is already surrounded by troops on the north and south. The presence of tens of thousands of civilians has slowed down military operations, and commanders say they are waiting to see what the LTTE will do when they are penned in. How likely is a conventional military victory? Very. When Reuters was given a rare visit to the frontline on Monday, troops and tanks were moving forward amid heavy LTTE shelling and the no-fire zone was just 6 km away. Commanders are confident it is a matter of days, not weeks.

 

HOW WILL IT PLAY OUT?

 

Hard to say, but one thing is for certain — the geography of the area will leave the LTTE completely surrounded. The military can then play a waiting game, and let the LTTE exhaust their ammunition. The LTTE’s biggest trump card at the moment is the civilians. The government says there are 70,000, but aid agencies put the number at 200,000. Diplomats and aid agencies are working hard to figure the logistics of getting them out after the Red Cross had success in negotiating the evacuation of several boatloads of sick and wounded. But they have had no luck persuading the LTTE to let people move. The military says it does not shoot at civilians, and commanders are not saying what their plans are for what could amount to a huge hostage crisis.

 

CEASEFIRE?

 

To varying degrees, international players from the European Union to the United Nations have urged some type of halt in the fighting to allow civilians to get out. The LTTE asked the international community on Monday to push for a ceasefire, saying civilians were in bad shape because of the fighting. They did not address statements from witnesses who have escaped saying the LTTE was shooting those who tried to flee and forcing others to stay as human shields. The government has ruled out a ceasefire given the LTTE’s history of using them to rearm. This time, the Tigers can surrender or be destroyed, the government says. Either a ceasefire or a surrender seem as likely as the sun rising in the west.

 

At no time in the 25-year conflict has the army been so close to handing the Tigers a conventional defeat, nor a Sri Lankan leader been as committed to military victory as President Mahinda Rajapaksa. And the Tigers wear cyanide capsules around their necks in case of capture.

 

AFTERMATH

 

No one, including the military, thinks the LTTE will completely wither away after a conventional defeat. The army says it is ready for hit-and-run guerrilla moves by the rebels for the immediate future. With the Tigers finished as a conventional force and all of the land back in government control, pressure for a political settlement to address the concerns of the Tamil minority will mount.

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