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Sri Lanka on Brink of All-Out War

by Ethirajan Anbarasan, BBC News, October 16, 2007

"The government seems to be emboldened by their recent military success in the east. So, they think there is no need to devolve power to the Tamils," says Mr Jeyaraj.

The Sri Lankan military and Tamil Tiger rebels seem to be gearing up for a major confrontation in the north of the country, stoking fears of more civilian casualties and displacement.

Despite losing territory in the east earlier this year, the rebels still control a vast swathe of land in the north of the island.

Tamil Tiger
The rebels are strengthening their defense lines

Although sporadic fighting has been going on for months, the intensity of the clashes has recently increased.

Fighting is currently taking place around Mannar, Vavuniya, Weli Oya and Jaffna - all areas which surround rebel-held territory. There are intermittent battles at sea as well.

"Sri Lankan forces are now focusing on the nerve centre of the rebels. Since their rear base is under threat, the Tigers have to break out militarily at some point," says analyst DBS Jeyaraj.

The pattern is clear. Both sides exchange heavy artillery fire in the Forward Defence Lines (FDLs), separating their forces. Heavy aerial bombardment is followed by military incursions.

Heavy fighting

The government claims that at least 280 rebels have been killed since September and more than 20 soldiers have been killed in various battles over the same period.

But the claims of both sides in relation to casualties and what exactly has happened on the battle front can rarely, if ever, be independently confirmed.

For its part, the government has denied starting any offensives.

"Government forces are only defending their positions and if they are attacked they will counter-attack," Sri Lankan army spokesperson Brig Udaya Nanayakkara told the BBC.

Earlier attempts by the military to capture the rebel stronghold in Vanni have ended in disaster. But buoyed by recent victories in the east, the army is now confident of recapturing territory in the north as well.

Tamil rebels are also gearing up for a major battle. There are already reports of the rebels establishing a three-layered defensive infrastructure inside Vanni region. Troops are likely to suffer casualties while trying to penetrate these heavily fortified defence lines.

But the Sri Lankan military claims to have had several morale-boosting successes in recent weeks. They claim that many rebel ships carrying arms have been destroyed recently in the open sea.

The military says that it has also moved into certain strategic areas in Mannar district. There is little doubt that their confidence is high.

Civilian plight

Perhaps the main concern is the fate of thousands of civilians trapped inside rebel-held areas and border regions. Local journalists say that more than 200 civilians have been killed in various incidents since the beginning of August. If full-scale conflict erupts, then civilians will be forced to flee.

There are already more than 5,000 civilians displaced in the recent fighting in the north.

Female Tamil Tigers pass civilians in rebel-held territory
The future of civilians looks bleak

"We were forced to leave our homes due to heavy shelling. We have been moving from place to place. Life in the refugee camps is miserable," says a displaced Tamil who did not want to be identified.

Some of the displaced civilians in the north are afraid that they may not be allowed to go back to their homes even if the fighting ends. They point out that while major clashes ceased in the east some months ago, more than 40,000 civilians are still scattered in various camps for displaced people.

The upsurge in fighting has happened despite the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement, signed in 2002. Everyone recognises that it now exists only on paper.

The political process is also in limbo. The government had announced the formation of an all-party group last year to discuss a political solution to the war. The final draft of the proposals is still under discussion and the delay is worrying the Tamils.

"The government seems to be emboldened by their recent military success in the east. So, they think there is no need to devolve power to the Tamils," says Mr Jeyaraj.

Human rights concern

Meanwhile, the government is also coming under intense scrutiny from human rights agencies, who accuse the security forces and paramilitary groups of abductions and killings. Officials vehemently deny these charges. Tamil rebels also face similar accusations from human rights groups. But they, too, deny the accusations.

Sri Lankan soldier
Morale in the army appears high

United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour spoke out strongly this month against the country's human rights record.

"The most serious human rights issue is the lack of credible public information on the large number of unresolved cases of abductions, disappearances and killings... These cases are not properly recorded, investigated and there is no prosecution," Ms Arbour told the BBC's Newshour programme after her recent visit to the island-nation.

The international community's plea to both warring parties to refrain from all-out war does not appear to be having any effect.

The forthcoming monsoon may delay an imminent major confrontation but analysts say Sri Lanka is on course for a protracted and a bitter conflict in the coming months.

In the meantime, displaced civilians are afraid that the lack of international attention to their plight will only add to their misery.


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