Sri Lanka looks for foreign military aid to quell Tamil insurgency

Washington and New Delhi, which wield considerable diplomatic influence on this tiny island nation, have been urging the Sri Lankan government to find a political solution to the protracted strife between its Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Nevertheless, official thinking here seems to be turning toward a military option, with a stepped-up campaign for foreign military aid to control Tamil insurgency.

With a military budget much expanded -- from $45 million in 1982 to $200 million in 1984 -- Sri Lankan embassies in a number of countries have embarked on a major arms procurement drive, following persistent rejections from Washington for $100 million in military aid.

Increasingly discouraged by the inability of its Army, which is largely Sinhalese, to contain the growing Tamil guerrilla movement, Sri Lanka is seeking both government-to-government aid and commercial arms sales to shore up its 16,000-man armed forces. Tamil guerrillas are fighting for statehood in the island's north and east.

Left unspecified has been potential access to Trin-comalee, an east-coast port coveted by both the East and the West in the strategic Indian Ocean.

Sri Lankan government officials say Britain, China, South Korea, Singapore, and Pakistan have responded favorably to requests for commercial purchases of arms.

Britain, to the annoyance of other NATO countries, reportedly has agreed to assist a number of commercial sales with government export credits, the first toward the purchase of 10 high-powered Cougar gunships.

A variety of small arms, armored troop carriers, and helicopter gunships now top Sri Lanka's shopping list.

As Sri Lanka seeks outside benefactors, there is growing Western concern that this explosive regional problem could be transformed into an international one.

President Junius Jayewardene turned to Israeli antiterrorist experts in an effort to transform his ill-disciplined Army into a fighting force. But in the face of growing Arab pressures -- Sri Lanka has a large work force in the Arab Persian Gulf -- and an on-the-spot Israeli appraisal, the undertaking fell apart. The Israeli presence has been reduced to two diplomats.

Tamil rebels say the government plan to put 30,000 Sinhalese settlers in the largely Tamil north -- which many Sinhalese also find objectionable -- can lead only to a repeat of a Nov. 30 Tamil attack on a pilot resettlement area in which 72 settlers were killed.

And, given the pattern of tit-for-tat, the Sri Lankan Army might again retaliate against Tamil civilians, who make up 20 percent of the island's 15 million people. Though concentrated in the east and north, the Tamils still number more than 1 million in the Sinhalese south.

With 50 million of its own Tamils in southern Tamil Nadu state, the Indian government has become increasingly concerned as Sri Lanka slides dangerously close to civil war. The Sri Lankan authorities counter that if India would close 12 Tamil guerrilla training camps in Tamil Nadu state, they could ``eliminate the terrorist problem.'' They would like Washington to urge New Delhi to close the camps. But the official Indian position continues to be that the camps do not exist.

Icy relations between India and Sri Lanka showed the potential for further deterioration when Sri Lanka's minister of national security visited New Delhi last weekend.

Following an hour-long meeting with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Lalith Athulathmudali returned to the Sri Lankan capital of Columbo earlier than planned amid signs that neither side would yield. Meanwhile, a DC-8 Zaire Cargo plane heading for Colombo with a shipment of arms and ammunition for the Sri Lankan Army made an unscheduled landing in south India. The supplier was Jordan, according to official Indian accounts, adding yet another dimension to Sri Lanka's bitter ethnic divide.

Jordan's involvement in Sri Lanka's warfare, if it proves to be true, adds the dimension of Jordan and Israel supporting the same side against Tamil insurgents who received training from the Palestinians in the 1970s.

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