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Friday, 18 July 2008

Colombo closes in on victory in Sri Lanka's long civil war

The offensive launched two years ago by Sri Lankan government forces against Tamil Tiger rebels took on new momentum in the past few days with the capture of a key rebel naval base.

On Wednesday government troops took the port town of Vidattaltivu on Sri Lanka's northwest coast after heavy fighting. The port has been a base for the Tamil Tigers' small boat navy and is an important entry point for arms and other supplies smuggled in by the rebels, mostly from India across the Palk Strait.

Government forces swiftly consolidated their hold on Vidattaltivu and pursued Tamil fighters northwards, attacking them with air force bombers and helicopter gunships.

Officers described the capture of the port as a "fatal blow" to the Tigers, properly known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who have been fighting for an independent Tamil state in northern Sri Lanka since 1983. About 70,000 people have died in the fighting and terrorist attacks by Tigers, who have targeted politicians, officials, journalists and civilians, usually in the capital, Colombo.

The Colombo government does indeed have cause for satisfaction and some confidence that its boast that it can capture all Tiger territory by the end of the year can be met.

Since the collapse of the 2002 ceasefire and peace process brokered by Norway, and the resumption of all-out civil war in 2006, government forces have had a steady succession of victories. Colombo's military now controls northeastern Sri Lanka, in part because of the defection of a local renegade Tamil Tiger commander known as "Karuna."

Though casualty claims by both sides are usually exaggerated and unreliable, the government claims to have killed 9,000 Tigers since 2006 while losing about 1,000 troops itself. Remaining Tiger forces are said to control only a shrinking area in north-western Sri Lanka.

Army Commander Lt.-Gen. Sarath Fonseka said a few days ago his soldiers have noted that the Tigers no longer have "the same strength and willpower to fight. We have already defeated them."

Fonseka is experienced enough, however, to know that even complete victory on the battlefield will not bring an end to the insurrection that has its roots in entrenched discrimination against Tamils by the country's Sinhalese majority.

In 1949 one of the first acts of the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government, fresh from independence from Britain the previous year, was to disenfranchise Indian Tamil plantation workers. The anti-Tamil drive gained momentum in 1956 with the election of the intemperate Sinhalese nationalist Solomon Bandaranaike as prime minister.

Sinhala was made the only official language, Tamils' access to government jobs and higher-level education was restricted, and measures introduced to enhance Sinhalese Buddhist culture. Most Tamils are Hindus.

Over the following years anti-Tamil riots killed hundreds of people and many thousands of Tamils were displaced. Government-sponsored anti-Tamil discrimination continues, including the extra-judicial killing of non-governmental organization workers and journalists who are deemed sympathetic to the Tamils or insufficiently loyal to the government.

In many ways the wonder is that it took until 1983 -- more than 30 years -- before the Tamil reaction to their subjugation became a full-blown separatist rebellion.

So even a conclusive military victory by the government forces now will not be a solution to Sri Lanka's internal problems.

"You might never be able to kill the last LTTE member," Foneska said, adding it is quite possible the Tigers could continue a terrorist insurgency for two decades or more.

That is more than likely. The Tamil Tigers invented the suicide bomb and have counted Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, among their victims.

Terrorist attacks by Tigers in the past few weeks include the machine-gunning of a civilian bus in which 24 people were killed, and the assassination of the highways minister.

But, as with all civil wars, there has to be a political solution to Sri Lanka's agony. That will have to include a semi-autonomous Tamil state in northern Sri Lanka.

The concern now for all Sri Lankans and the country's neighbours is that a battlefield victory will blind the Colombo government to this necessity.

Source: Vancouver Sun

Sri Lanka journalists harassed: media group

Journalists covering Sri Lanka's war with Tamil Tiger rebels are being harassed despite a government pledge to take action to protect the press, a rights group said Friday.

The Free Media Movement (FMM) reported eight incidents of threats and intimidation, just two weeks after a ministerial committee was formed to look at the issue of media rights.

The incidents included verbal death threats, assaults in public places and visits to journalists' homes by people claiming to be from the police, the statement said.

"It is apparent that the cabinet sub-committee... is powerless to foster media freedom and the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka, or investigate meaningfully the violence directed at journalists," the FMM said.

The rights group demanded a probe into the recent incidents and asked the committee to tell police to respect journalists.

In June, Sri Lanka's hawkish defence ministry published several editorials which labelled journalists and reporters "cowboy defence analysts" and "enemies of the state."

The defence ministry presented reporters with a stark choice of being either pro-government or "pro-terrorist" -- sparking renewed alarm among media rights activists about freedom of the press in Sri Lanka.

Since August 2005, 12 media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka, which is regarded as the second-most dangerous place for journalists after Iraq.

Eleven of them died in government-controlled areas and no one has been brought to justice in connection with the deaths.

Sri Lanka's bitter ethnic war, which has left thousands of people dead, has escalated sharply since January, when the government pulled out of a Norwegian-brokered truce with the Tamil Tigers.

Source: AFP