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Sri Lanka May Be Heading For A Military Stalemate

by News Post India, February 5, 2008

The armed forces are actually bogged down in the north over a wide swath of territory, ranging from Mannar in the northwest to Weli Oya and Nagarkovil in the northeast.

The government forces are making determined efforts to break through the first and second lines of defence of the LTTE. The best troops and equipment are being deployed. But the Tigers are offering 'very' stiff resistance, reliable sources said.

Sri Lankan leaders are gung-ho about capturing by the year-end the country's northern regions the Tamil Tigers now control. But ground realities do not match the optimism, say military observers who are predicting a military stalemate rather than an outright victory for either party.

Army chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka has declared he would not hand over the 'terrorist problem' to his successor when he retires at the end of this year. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's brother, has vowed to kill Tamil Tigers chief Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The president claims that the armed forces have notched up 'unprecedented victories' in the past two years, that the bastions of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been falling rapidly, and that only 'one and a half districts' remain with the rebels.

Indeed, the capture of the eastern province from the LTTE and the destruction of a number of LTTE ships were spectacular achievements. These have helped keep public morale high in the largely Sinhalese-speaking southern Sri Lanka, the key political constituency of President Rajapaksa.

However, since mid-2007, the Sri Lankan ground forces have not been able to show any notable successes, giving rise to fears among military observers that there could be a prolonged stalemate, leading to public disillusionment.

The operations in Mannar in the northwest began Sep 23 last year. The aim was to capture Viduthaltivu, 16 km to the north. But after four months of fighting, only eight kilometres have been taken, a military expert who did not want to be identified told IANS. 'And this is just the periphery of the periphery.'

The armed forces are actually bogged down in the north over a wide swath of territory, ranging from Mannar in the northwest to Weli Oya and Nagarkovil in the northeast.

The government forces are making determined efforts to break through the first and second lines of defence of the LTTE. The best troops and equipment are being deployed. But the Tigers are offering 'very' stiff resistance, reliable sources said.

'Casualties have been very high on both sides, with the LTTE taking approximately twice as much as the government forces,' an expert said. But this has clearly not dented the Tiger resolve.

An estimated 50,000 troops are stationed in the Jaffna peninsula in the northern tip. But, strangely, these are not being deployed to break through Thenmarachchi, in the Jaffna region, capture the Elephant Pass, a narrow isthmus that links Jaffna to the Sri Lankan mainland, and threaten the LTTE holed up in the Wanni, as the northern region minus Jaffna is known.

To relieve the pressure on itself in the north and divert the energies of the government forces, the LTTE is counter-attacking at Weli Oya in the northeast. It has also shelled Palaly, the only air base in the Jaffna peninsula, forcing the government to cancel Jaffna-Colombo flights.

More importantly, the Tigers have been staging small-scale terrorist attacks all over southern Sri Lanka, including Colombo.

Claymore mine attacks and suicide bombing missions have been conducted over a very wide area, from Kebetigollewa and Weli Oya at the northern end, to Buttala and Yala in the deep south; and from Colombo in the west to Kanjikudichcharu in the eastern district of Amparai.

And although the LTTE is said to have been driven out of the east, it took over the Special Task Force camp in Bakmityawa in Amparai district Monday, albeit briefly.

While the ambitious plan to capture the entire northern province by year-end is keeping thousands of government troops tied up along a wide northern front, the need for fresh troops in the beleaguered south is increasing.

'Apart from an estimated 50,000 in Jaffna, the newly captured 2,000 sq km in the east would need another 100,000 troops. Yala would need about 4,000. All this constitutes half the land area of Sri Lanka. The total needs could be 250,000 troops, without taking into account the all-important Colombo region that will need another 100,000,' said retired Air Chief Marshal Harry Goonetileke.

This raises costs. 'In 2007, the defence budget was SLRs. 139 billion ($1.3 billion). But the actual expenditure was 20 percent more. The spending this year is expected to be SLRs. 166 billion ($1.5 billion),' Goonetileke said.

Added Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute of Development: 'And this is happening in the context of aid cuts by several Western countries.'

But President Rajapaksa insists that the West and India are backing him and that there has been no aid cut.

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