Sri Lanka meets tough Tamil Tiger resistance in north

A rush-hour bomb blast killed dozens near Colombo, Friday. Earlier, the Army announced it had recaptured a key church.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Scores of Sri Lankan soldiers and Tamil Tiger rebels were killed this week in fierce fighting that has diminished the government's claim that it will wrest the north from rebel control by the end of the year.

On Friday, military sources told reporters that at least 165 soldiers had been killed and more than 20 were missing after heavy fighting Wednesday in Sri Lanka's far north. Earlier, the Army had claimed 43 soldiers and 100 rebels had died, while the rebels claimed they had killed 100 soldiers and lost only 25 of their own men.

Friday evening, violence struck near the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, when a bomb went off on a bus during rush hour. At least 24 people were killed, and twice that number wounded, according to a government spokesman, who held the Tamil Tigers responsible. The rebels did not comment immediately.
Observers of this week's fighting say both sides overstate their enemy's losses, while low-balling their own. But they also say that the battle has revealed the apparent strength of the Tiger forces in the north, which the government had claimed were on the decline.

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"The rebels' fight came as a big surprise to both the Army and the government," says Iqbal Athas, a leading Sri Lankan journalist and defense correspondent for the country's Sunday Times newspaper. "But one of the biggest problems of this war has been the constant underestimation of the rebels by the government."

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority in the east and north of the country since 1983. The war is estimated to have killed at least 70,000 people.

Last year the government, which is dominated by the island's Sinhalese majority, seized control of the east from the rebels. Now it is focusing its efforts on the north of the country, an area known as the Wanni, which is tightly controlled by the Tigers.

On Friday, the Army appeared to have scored a major victory when it announced that it had captured a centuries-old Roman Catholic church in Madhu, in the island's northwest.

The 17th-century Dutch-built church has assumed a symbolic importance in Sri Lanka's long ethnic war. It has been under Tiger control since 1999 and is one of the island's most important Christian shrines, home to a 400 year-old statue of the Virgin Mary that many of the island's Roman Catholics believe is sacred.

The government says local Tamils have long used the church as a sanctuary to escape the Tigers, who are notorious for enforced recruitment of child soldiers.

But while many analysts say that the Army now has the upper hand in the north, no one sees a clear victor emerging any time soon.

"Winning the north is not impossible, but the costs will be very high indeed," says Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a nonpartisan advocacy group. "And it's possible that however many men the Army is prepared to sacrifice, they won't get through. What I'm hearing is that when the soldiers begin to see the heavy death toll, they will become demoralized and that will be a big problem."

But the government will push on, he adds. "The problem is: The government is so determined to show results. It can claim the death of many Tigers; no one knows what to believe about those claims. What it really has to show is the capture of territory, as it did in the east."

Referring to the government's promise that it would take the Wanni by year's end, Mr. Ithas, the journalist, cautioned that the government had set timetables for victories in the past that it had failed to meet.

"In two-and-a-half decades of fighting, the government has set constant deadlines for the end of war," he says. "It is true that the Army has grown in strength and sophistication in recent years. But what it always seems to forget is that it is still dealing with a guerrilla force."

Meanwhile, the human costs of the conflict spread far and wide. Last week, a Roman Catholic priest and prominent human rights activist was killed in a roadside bomb blast in Kilinochchi, in the Wanni. Rebels said an Army bomb killed Father M. X. Karunaratnam, who headed the NorthEast Secretariat on Human Rights.

The island's dire human rights situation also shows no sign of improving. Activists have reported hundreds of abductions, disappearances, and killings blamed on one side or the other in recent years. But today, the country has lost many of the international human rights observers who, unlike domestic human rights activists, were guaranteed a measure of security as they unearthed abuses.

After the government formally scrapped a six-year peace agreement in January, it evicted the Norwegian group that had monitored it.

On April 15, foreign observers from the international independent group of eminent persons (IIGEP) – a group nominated by foreign countries to oversee a Sri Lankan government probe into abuses – said there was a "lack of political will to find the truth."

In March, the members of the IIGEP had complained the government was interfering in their work. They then themselves left Sri Lanka.

"The uncooperative atmosphere has rendered the task of [the panel], which approached its work in a spirit of cooperation and, at first, with optimism, disquieting and unpleasant," the report stated.

Meanwhile, the country's traditionally resilient economy continues to suffer. This year, the government earmarked a record $1.5 billion for the war effort. In March, Sri Lanka's year-on-year inflation exceeded 28 percent, the highest in a decade.

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