Fighting escalates in Sri Lanka

Government leaders talks of devolution, while Army prepares to target Tiger heartland in the north.

As he walks across "no man's land," a desolate stretch of ground in Omanthai, in northern Sri Lanka, that serves as the de facto border of the Tamil Tigers' northern heartland, a white-haired farmer tells of his fears.

He hates living under the rule of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), he explains, as he tramps south to a military checkpoint where his bag and body will be searched for weapons.

But he also dreads the Army's escalating battle against the rebels, for many of his relatives have been recruited by the Tigers as combatants.

Sri Lanka stands at an important crossroads in the war that has killed 70,000 since 1983, when the Tigers began fighting for a northeastern homeland for the Tamil minority. This summer, the government claimed to have routed the Tigers from the east for the first time in 14 years.

Now, it has its guns trained on the north. In early September, the Army cleared rebels from Mannar, an area just south of Tiger territory, capturing a sea base, an operation thought to be preparatory for a northern assault.

The head of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, says he is keen to follow up the success of the east in the north, and soon.

"We should not give them the time or the place to regroup," says the much-decorated soldier, as he sipped tea in the Army headquarters in Colombo. Predicting that the northern campaign would be "similar to that in the east, but more intensive," General Fonseka says the rebel heartland could be won, "in a year, maybe less."

Only months ago, the government predicted it would take two or three years to crush the Tigers, but it has been emboldened by the recent victories. And the relative ease with which Mannar was cleared, observers say, suggests the tenacious Tigers are much weakened. Last week, the government announced another coup: the sinking of three rebel freighters.

Yet analysts warn victory against the rebels is a long way off.

Push north may be more bloody

Last week, shelling was audible in the frontier town of Vavuniya, 10 miles south of Omanthai. There have been border skirmishes and aerial bombardments in the Tigers' fiefdom for months now, but military analysts say they are being stepped up.

The push northward is not expected until the end of the year. But when it comes, it will be extremely nasty, says Harry Goonetilleke, a retired air marshal and military analyst.

"I hope my words are not prophetic," he says. "But the push for the north is going to be much bloodier than the east."

The Tigers never had full control over eastern Sri Lanka, with its mix of Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims. But they have a vise-like hold on the north, and Goonetilleke says they will not go down without a fight.

The result, he says, will be a major displacement of civilians – which aid agencies in the area are preparing for – and many deaths.

"I'm sure when the battle continues, civilians won't hang around" says Fonseka when asked about the likelihood of civilian deaths. "We don't mind taking military casualties if we are winning," he adds.

Talking of devolution

The government itself has said that peace will be impossible without a political solution: giving some kind of autonomy to the Tamils, who for decades have suffered discrimination by the Sinhalese majority.

Sri Lankan political parties have reached broad consensus on a proposal to devolve governance to the provincial level, rather than the district level that the government had suggested.

But Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said Sept. 17 there would be no political solution until the Tigers were crushed. Though he hastily followed this up by urging the rebels to return to peace talks, observers say his earlier gung-ho rhetoric was a truer expression of the government's position.

Lessons from the east

Western diplomats, meanwhile, are urging the government to look to the east, where it has a chance to show Tamils they are better off under government rule. So far, they say, it has not done a persuasive job.

In Trincomalee, a strategic eastern harbor town, the government recently celebrated its military victories with fanfare.

Nearby, more than 80 families are camping in a town hall - their living areas demarcated by cooking pots and piles of clothes - as they have done for over a year since they were shelled out of their homes.

Many come from Sampur, a town from which the rebels had attacked the navy, and which has now been declared a high security zone. Its former inhabitants are unlikely to ever return home.

"There's no space here for my children," says Nimalee, looking miserable in her orange nightdress. "And Sampur people are not allowed to fish," she adds, gesturing out of the door to the sparkling blue Indian Ocean.

The local fishermen might argue that they aren't either. Fearing collusion with the Sea Tigers – the rebels' naval wing – authorities have banned night catches. Fishermen form 40 percent of Trincomalee's working population, and the ban has hit the town hard.

"If the government has brought peace, as it says, why won't it let fishermen fish?" asks V Jeevaraj, project manager with aid organization Sarvodaya.

Across town, in his white-washed church, Fr. George Dissanayake says he hopes the government is watching the east as carefully as the north.

"You know, people don't really mind who rules them as long as they can live in peace and look after their children," he says.

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