IN its second large-scale military offensive against rebel Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka is trying to win back people as much as land.
The Army has thrust deep into rebel territory, hoping to cut off the Jaffna peninsula from the mainland and force Tamil civilians to leave the rebel stronghold. And while the Tigers are desperate to keep a firm grip on the civilians - the government is equally desperate to prize that grip open.
Fighting an often bloody war for an independent homeland in the north and east of the island for the last 13 years, the mainly Hindu Tamil Tigers say they are discriminated against. Tamils number about 3.5 million out of a population of 18 million. The majority of the population is made up of ethnic Sinhalese who are Buddhists and who control the military and government.
The latest offensive - code named Operation Riviresa Two - began last Friday, a year to the day after the well-armed Tigers broke off peace talks with the government. They later rejected a package which offered them greater autonomy, and instead relaunched their war.
"Without jurisdiction over the Tamil civilians of the Jaffna Peninsula, the government will be unable to introduce its planned devolution package for the north and east, on which President Chandrika Kumaratunga has staked her political future," explains a Western diplomat in Colombo, the capital.
Details of the operation are still sketchy since journalists have been refused access to the conflict areas, and under new emergency powers, Mrs. Kumaratunga has imposed restrictions on the local press. According to the government, the armed forces have been inflicting considerable losses on Tigers with their use of heavy artillery and aerial bombardments.
Those claims appear to be supported by reports on the clandestine rebel radio, which admit government troops have seized important rebel towns. "Government troops have advanced as far as ... Kodikaman," the radio said in a rare admission of a significant loss.
Civilian refugees leave peninsula
Reports from unofficial sources in the region tell of around 25,000 people gathering on the banks of the lagoon, waiting to be ferried to the relative safety of the mainland. Many of the refugees were headed toward Kilinochchi, where the Tiger leadership has its makeshift headquarters.
Once there, they are likely to join the estimated 300,000 Tamil civilians already housed in camps set up after a mass exodus from a government offensive last December. That assault ended with the recapture of Jaffna, the rebel's main stronghold. Although it has remained under government control ever since, the inhabitants of Jaffna have, for the most part, fled.
The long-awaited government plans for limited autonomy or devolution in the majority Tamil areas were unveiled to a lukewarm response last August. The Tigers rejected the plans outright, saying they would settle for nothing less than a separate sovereign state. Even the moderate Tamil political parties - on whom the government depends on for a parliamentary majority - are less than keen on the proposals.
But the main political obstacle to the government's proposals is the Buddhist clergy and the Sinhalese nationalism that accompanies it.
The clergy is deeply opposed to any concessions to the predominantly Hindu Tamils. A compromise may still be reached - a parliamentary committee is examining how the proposals can be amended to accommodate both the Sinhalese nationalists and the moderate Tamil parties.