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Sri Lanka bombing brings new fear

[BBC, Tuesday, 10 March 2009 16:16 No Comment]

The deaths of at least 14 people in a suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomb attack in southern Sri Lanka has raised fears that a new and bloody era is beginning in the Sri Lankan war.

With the rebels losing significant chunks of territory in recent weeks, some predict that the war will now be characterised by similar attacks all over the country – with government ministers, army personnel, police and Sinhalese civilians all likely targets.


"It shows once again that Tamil Tiger rebels retain the capacity to attack targets far removed from their traditional strongholds in the north and east, despite significant territorial losses in recent weeks," says Chandana Keerthi Bandara of the BBC’s Sinhala service.


"Nowhere in Sri Lanka can now be considered to be safe from such attacks as the rebels metamorphose from fighting a conventional war on the ground to fighting a guerrilla war where targets are attacked randomly."


Sleeper cells

Over the years the Tigers have never really stopped carrying out such attacks – in the last two years the south and east have been hit by suicide bombers, roadside bombings and gunmen targeting Sinhalese villages.


They have both the infrastructure on the ground and the resources to get personnel and supplies to the south to launch such attacks. It’s thought that much of this personnel and equipment is smuggled from the north-east through heavy jungle on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast.


Barely three weeks ago evidence of the rebels’ strength on the ground in the south was seen when 21 villagers were killed by a suspected Tamil Tiger "hit squad" in the district of Ampara. Such attacks could now become far more commonplace and far more intense.


"The rebels have always been adept at getting men and supplies to the south to launch such attacks," says Chandana Keerthi Bandara. "The military believe they have sleeper cells or dormant units dotted all over the area who will strike as soon as orders come through from the north.


"The recent bombing at a government function in the town of Akuressa almost seems to come with a message from the rebels to the general population: do not attend public gatherings attending by army personnel or politicians, because if you do, you may be targeted."


The rebels will no doubt be keen to do their utmost to disrupt elections in April in three districts of the Western Province. That vote will be followed by polling in Southern Province, where Tuesday’s incident took place.


Most analysts say its unlikely – given the extent of their loses on the ground – that the rebels will be able to launch a repeat of the air raid on Colombo last month – because both planes used in that attack were destroyed.


‘International condemnation’

Meanwhile the war in the north-east continues unabated. A senior official earlier told the BBC Sinhala service that 300,000 civilians remain in the small pocket of land still controlled by the rebels. Analysts say their fate is inextricably linked with the battle to secure this land.


"These people are basically being used as pawns by both sides," says the BBC’s Elmo Fernando. "The rebels know that as long as they remain, the army will be reluctant to launch its final push because of international condemnation over the high level of civilian casualties.


"But at the same time there is growing concern that the authorities are not allowing adequate supplies of food and medicine to get through to them because they want to entice them away from the conflict areas, even if this means they have to put themselves in great danger to do so."


The testimony of civilians who have been evacuated indicates just how scarce medical supplies are in rebel-held areas. Many had only superficial wounds, but because they were unable to get bandages and antibiotics, those wounds had festered and become much worse.


The government says that in recent weeks it has been trying to ease the plight of civilians by announcing several safe passages for them to escape the war-affected area and flee to the south, but it’s estimated that so far only about 35,000 people have done so.


"With the weather worsening and the seas becoming more rough, the delivery of essential supplies to these civilians is expected further to diminish – already there are reports that some of these people are severely malnourished and some are even reported to have starved," says Elmo Fernando.


Meanwhile the prospects for peace look grimmer than ever. The recent appointment of the former rebel commander, Col Karuna, as minister for reconciliation has been roundly condemned by rebel supporters and some independent observers.


Col Karuna defected to the government side in 2004 and is loathed by the Tigers because of his perceived "disloyalty".

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