Sri Lankan troops break through rebel defenses
Wed August 20, 2008 12:40 EDT .
RAVI NESSMAN - Associated Press Writer - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) The Sri Lankan military says it has broken through the Tamil Tigers' defenses in recent weeks, ending a prolonged stalemate and stirring predictions of an imminent rebel defeat after 25 years of civil war.
Troops overran a major rebel naval base on July 16, then pushed deep into the north, capturing four more bases and entering the rebel's heartland in the Kilinochchi district for the first time in 11 years.
Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake speculated that troops might seize the rebels' administrative capital in the town of Kilinochchi by the end of the week.
``We are very close. Kilinochchi is not very far from our sight,'' he told a ruling party rally Monday, according to the Daily Mirror newspaper.
Few other officials publicly predicted such a swift advance, and some analysts warned the rebels might be marshaling their forces for a major counterattack, as they have done repeatedly in the past.
But even opposition leaders, who have been highly critical of the government's handling of the war, praised the recent successes.
``You really have to appreciate what the services are doing at the moment,'' said Lakshman Senewiratne, an opposition lawmaker. ``They are doing a great job, a great job I would say. Even though there are ups and downs, the achievements are great.''
The war on this Indian Ocean island nation has killed more than 70,000 people as the separatists fought for an independent state for minority Tamils in the north and east, following decades of marginalization by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.
The rebels, listed as a terror group by the United States and European Union, have been accused of scores of suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians.
A 2002 cease-fire appeared to pave the path for peace, until fighting flared 2 1/2 years ago. The government captured the east last year, and then turned its focus to the rebels' main power base in the north.
For months, the army made only small advances into rebel-held areas, as the two sides traded fire over relatively static front lines.
Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said the advance was slowed when troops reached an 8-mile stretch of open land in the rice paddies of the northwestern Mannar district that left them completely exposed to rebel attacks.
Soldiers were forced to operate in the dark of night, making small advances, destroying rebel bunker lines and quickly digging fortifications of their own before sunrise left them exposed again, he said.
In June, government forces finally made it across the rice paddies and behind the rebels' heaviest fortifications, he said.
``They did not have defenses in that area ... so they could not prepare themselves to face the military threat,'' Nanayakkara said.
The offensive suddenly picked up speed, with soldiers overrunning a rebel naval base at the coastal town of Vidattaltivu used for smuggling and waging sea attacks and then racing up the coast, seizing four more bases in a thrust deep into rebel territory, he said. That operation, combined with earlier military victories, shrank the rebels' de facto state to nearly half its previous size, he said.
Tens of thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting fled deeper into government territory, aid workers and government officials said.
Repeated attempts in recent days to reach rebel spokesmen have been unsuccessful. Aid groups said the government cut off most phone service to the rebel areas, which Nanayakkara denied.
While international observers and political opponents have accused the government of vastly exaggerating victories over the rebels, many say the military's recent achievements appeared genuine. Independent verification of the government claims was not possible because journalists were barred from the war zone.
Some government officials found themselves uncharacteristically counseling patience, saying the war is far from over.
``There's some more to go, other areas to get, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu,'' Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Associated Press, naming the rebels' two power centers.
However, ``the troops are confident, the soldiers are confident, the army commander is confident,'' he said.
Political analyst Susantha Seneviratne, a retired colonel, warned the troops will have more difficulty advancing along the heavily mined areas to the east, and the current offensive if not over soon will bog down once the monsoon rains start in October or November.
He also feared the rebels' quick withdrawals in recent weeks were a trap to lure the troops into the jungles in the interior, where the guerrillas, who still have artillery and other heavy weapons, will launch a major counterattack.
``This silence is not good for the troops at all,'' he said.
Senewiratne, the opposition lawmaker, said the recent successes have put added pressure on the rebels, but the ethnic conflict underlying the civil war will not be resolved on the battlefield.
``Sooner or later, we have to go for a negotiated settlement,'' he said.Discuss this story
Published: Wed Aug 20 18:32:15 EDT 2008