Tamil Rebels Launch Offensive Against Sri Lankan Army Post

ALTHOUGH Tamil Tiger rebels firmly control the strategic northern city of Jaffna, extending their clout throughout the rest of the northeast of Sri Lanka will be tough, Western analysts say. So far, the country's eight-year-old civil war remains a series of inconclusive standoffs, they say.

In the last year, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam forced out the majority Sinhalese and Tamil Muslims and now rule Jaffna through extortion, conscription of young men, and bans on dissent, analysts say.

Yet political observers say the Tigers enjoy the resigned support of the northern Tamils who for years have chafed at Sinhalese domination and oppression.

The guerrillas renewed their separatist campaign last summer after 14-month-long negotiations with the government in Colombo broke down.

Now, in a bid to widen their control, the Tigers are besieging an Army camp guarding the key Elephant Pass gateway to the Jaffna Peninsula. The Sri Lankan Army has responded with air bombardment and boasts that it will clear the Tigers from eastern Sri Lanka in less than a month.

The fighting erupted anew last summer just as the economy, buoyed by the brief period of peace, was beginning to recover after years of war. Defense expenditures have jumped 50 percent since then, and inflation is rising. In Jaffna, telephone lines have been cut by government bombing, and fuel and basic commodities are in short supply because of the government blockade of the peninsula.

Sri Lanka's economy also has been battered by the lost remittances of about 100,000 migrant workers forced to return from the Persian Gulf after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Sri Lanka lost one-fourth of its overseas market for tea when economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq.

Despite Tiger aspirations to control the east of the island as well as the north, Trincomalee and other eastern cities remain in government hands, political observers say. Unlike the Tamil-dominated north, the east includes large communities of the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and Muslims who resist Tamil control.

The government has pursued its full-fledged civil war against the Tigers, despite their assassination of Ranjan Wijeratne, the hard-line minister of state for defense, in Colombo earlier this year.

The bellicose defense official had not only directed the military campaign against the Tigers, but had also crushed left-wing Sinhalese insurgents in a harsh crackdown two years ago.

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