COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — A SRI LANKAN government offensive against Tamil separatists in Jaffna appears to have ended in failure. The Sri Lankan government announced last week that its forces were withdrawing after liberating a 17th century Dutch fort in the center of Jaffna two weeks ago. The fort had been at the center of heavy fighting between government troops and Tamil Tiger guerrillas who are fighting for an independent homeland called Eelam. Two hundred Sri Lankan soldiers and policemen had been trapped in the fort since June, when the Tigers broke off peace talks with the government and renewed their armed struggle.
The government also announced that it was evacuating troops from two tiny islands just off the Jaffna coast, which it had captured from the rebels. But both instances where the government decided to pull out troops highlight the limited success of its forces in defeating the Tigers in Jaffna, the heartland of Sri Lanka's minority Tamil community.
``The forces had been unable to move more than 100 meters from the fort. They were penned in and coming under heavy fire from rebel positions,'' says a Western diplomat in Colombo. Although the fort was of little strategic importance, a symbolic victory was crucial to troops' morale, as the fort signified the only real Army presence in Jaffna. The city and surrounding peninsula are controlled by rebels.
Heavy bombing of the Jaffna Peninsula is taking place daily. Aging transport planes of the Sri Lankan Air Force are being used as bombers. Despite claims by the Sri Lankan government that their war is against the Tigers, civilian areas are also being hit in bombing raids.
``At least 400 civilians have died in the bombing in Jaffna. Our boys know when a raid is to take place. It is civilians who are being hardest hit,'' says Anton Balasingham, political ideology chief for the Tigers. Houses, schools, shops, and churches have been destroyed. The center of Jaffna City is flattened and without electricity or running water.
Despite the government forces' aerial advantage in the war, they are not making significant headway against the well-entrenched bunkers of the Tigers. With neither side making substantial gains, Western diplomats in Colombo say that the government's decision to withdraw its troops marks a significant shift in strategy.
``Before, the aim was to wipe out the Tigers. But the government can't afford to keep up the barrage.... Now they will try and weaken the Tigers and hope to bring them to negotiations from a position of strength,'' says a Western diplomat. The war costs the Sri Lankan government nearly $500,000 a day. And the country is reeling from the effects of the Gulf crisis. Prices of food and gasoline are rising. The more than 100,000 Sri Lankans who worked in Kuwait annually sent home $75 million - the country's largest source of foreign exchange. Iraq was also the largest buyer of Sri Lanka's tea.
``The full effects of the Gulf crisis are not yet being felt. The war is also costly and becoming near-impossible to fund,'' says a moderate Tamil politician in Colombo.
``Neither side is making headway and both government and rebels are finding it difficult to keep up the momentum. Eventually, the two sides will have to sit down and talk,'' says a Western diplomat.