Sri Lanka: under siege but intact
On a visit to the island, US Undersecretary of State Pickering encourages rebels to negotiate.
When Tamil Tiger separatists stampeded a Sri Lankan stronghold called Elephant Pass on April 21, most experts wrote the epitaph for the unity of Sri Lanka and its Army. Armed with rocket launchers, 5,000 Tiger soldiers overwhelmed 40,000 Sri Lankan troops and in three days took a position the Army had captured only after 17 painful months.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It seemed only days or hours before the ferocious Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), one of the most feared and efficient guerrilla groups in the world, would roll into Jaffna city. Located near the tip of Sri Lanka's Tamil-majority northern peninsula, Jaffna is considered by Tamils to be the mythic capital of a greatly desired independent Tamil homeland, or "Eelam."
Yet in the past two weeks, the Sri Lankan Army has begun to do what no one expected: They have started to fight back.
Journalists are barred from the fighting areas, but reliable sources report that the military has been rearming. It's using satellite imagery provided by the West to detect guerrilla positions, and it has stalled the Tigers' three-pronged attack in northern Sri Lanka. Early in the week the Army had, at least temporarily, driven the guerrillas from Chavakachcheri, a key city.
"The momentum has shifted in the past week," says Ajay Behera, an expert on Sri Lanka at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "If the LTTE was going to take Jaffna, they were going to have to do it quickly. They can carry out a conventional war for only a short period of time. The LTTE is a great fighting force, and they may still take Jaffna. But they are not an army, and they are now exposed on the field."
To the ethnic majority Sinhalese government of Sri Lanka, which has battled the LTTE since 1982, the taking of Elephant Pass was a devastating loss - capable of dividing the tropical island nation, creating political and economic chaos, and adding to the instability of an already unstable region.
The LTTE, led by brutal warlord Vellupillai Prabhakaran, had never captured the strategic pass, a redoubt built by the Dutch that overlooks a narrow highway connecting the Sri Lankan mainland with the tiny peninsula.
The potential fall of Jaffna has caused concern in India, just across the Palk Strait from Sri Lanka, and in the international community. The US State Department has labeled the LTTE a terrorist organization. The Tigers, operating often with young boys and girls who join suicide mission groups, have assassinated dozens of Sri Lankan officials, a president, defense ministers, and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, as well as much of the moderate Tamil leadership.
After Elephant Pass was overrun, debate in India was thick over whether to intervene. But in recent weeks, India has bowed out of any military role short of possibly helping Sri Lankan forces to withdraw - largely due to negative public opinion based on India's last troubled experience in Sri Lanka.