Hopes for a speedy end to Sri Lanka's bitter 13-year civil war are becoming increasingly distant, following a series of violent encounters in recent weeks between the government forces and the rebel Tamil Tigers, unofficial military observers say.
Dramatic military gains by government forces on the northern Jaffna Peninsula earlier this year left them in control of vast areas of territory and also placed several hundred thousand Tamil civilians in government hands for the first time in nearly a decade. It also raised the government's hopes that the Tigers could soon be defeated. The rebels have been waging a violent campaign for an independent and ethnically pure Tamil state, centered around the northern Jaffna Peninsula. They accuse the ethnic Sinhalese-dominated government of prejudice against Tamils in language and government jobs.
For weeks after their routing in the north, the Tigers kept a relatively low profile, emerging only for sporadic attacks against isolated Army patrols. But in recent weeks, the rebels have become increasingly active, staging devastating attacks against government forces across the country.
In a serious breach of military security earlier this month, a senior government minister in charge of rebuilding the Jaffna area narrowly escaped assassination when a young Tamil suicide bomber approached his motorcade in the town of Jaffna. The explosion killed at least 26 people, including a senior Army commander and several Tamil civilians. More than 60 others were badly injured.
Earlier, in the island nation's troubled eastern province - where government and rebel forces are still vying for control of territory - a group of around 200 well-armed rebel fighters wiped out an entire Army platoon, killing at least 32 soldiers. Defense officials said nearly 40 rebels were also killed, but unofficial reports say the real figure was closer to just two.
"These attacks show, on the one hand, that the Tamil Tigers are far from a beaten force. On the other, the scale of Tiger activity in supposedly government held areas ... exposes the weakness of the security forces to dominate the areas now under their nominal command," says Iqbal Athas, a defense analyst in Colombo.
Part of the problem, say military observers, is a desperate shortage of manpower. An ever-diminishing number of Sri Lankans are willing to serve in their country's armed forces, including a growing number of those already in service. Morale is low and desertion from the ranks has depleted military strength by at least 15,000 trained soldiers in the past 18 months alone, according to unofficial estimates. That number is swelling criminal gangs and police say is injecting a dangerous military element into national crime.
In a series of moves to limit damages, an unconditional amnesty for all deserters has been extended, but has been accepted by few. Defense officials say a recent recruitment drive "succeeded in filling existing vacancies," but military sources say the target of 10,000 new recruits was missed by a significant margin.
For the People's Alliance government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, which came to power in a landslide election victory two years ago promising to end the civil war, the setbacks are posing immense problems, political analysts say.
Ambitious plans to rebuild the Jaffna as a "peace city" were greeted with cautious optimism by the international community, which is being asked to foot the bill.
Many of their reservations about the government's grip on the former rebel stronghold have been compounded by the apparent ability of the Tamil Tigers to infiltrate the area and strike at will against high-level military and political targets.
"We had been planning a visit to Jaffna to assess ... the extent of the war damage and to help us decide what specific projects our government might want to fund. But now all trips to the north are suspended. The Sri Lankans say they will provide us with security, but we're adopting a 'wait-and-see' strategy," says a Colombo-based diplomat.
Concerns are also being raised about the situation the government finds itself in. A controversial proposal to marginalize the rebels by granting Tamil-majority areas limited autonomy has been all but been rejected by the majority Sinhalese opposition United National Party, whose support is needed for any constitutional change.
More pressing, say Colombo political analysts, is the rising cost of a civil war that has dragged on. Defense spending is now at its highest level for years and has pushed up the price of living for the country's voters, making a government elected with a "peace mandate" increasingly unpopular.