Rebels Holding Their Own Against Sri Lankan Offensive : Civil war: Army’s advance on key Jaffna base has been slowed by hundreds of die-hard Tamil fighters.


The Sri Lankan army’s plan was for “Operation Sunshine” to have scored a decisive victory by now. Instead, the nation’s civil war is slogging grimly on, with many doubting that even a knockout success by government forces will end the bloodshed any time soon.

On Monday, 42 days into an offensive launched by the army to capture the Tamil rebels’ northern heartland and the coastal city that has been their de facto capital for five years, the advance had visibly slowed--and perhaps stalled.

“They say they are consolidating their positions, which means that they haven’t advanced beyond yesterday,” military journalist Iqbal Athas, based in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, noted tartly.

At least 300 die-hard fighters from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are reportedly holding out in the center of the besieged town of Jaffna, confounding the Sri Lankan military, which had believed the rebels would flee with the civilian populace, Athas said.


Booby-traps and minefields in the densely built city are also badly hampering the army’s advance.

Over the weekend, the rebels staged a counterattack cloaked in a choking cloud of tear gas, but the army retaliated, killing at least 80 guerrillas, military spokesman Brig. Sarath Munasinghe said.

“It’s not very easy for us [to enter Jaffna]. They are offering very heavy resistance because they know it is a do-or-die battle for them,” Munasinghe said.

On Nov. 20, government security forces fought their way into the eastern outskirts of Jaffna and set foot in the city for the first time in more than five years. On Thursday, they claimed to have effectively sealed off the town.

The army’s top commanders had wanted to be in full possession of the city by Sunday to humiliate the Tigers’ founder and leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, on his 41st birthday. Instead, the attack slowed, and the Tigers’ burly chief snubbed an offer of negotiations extended earlier by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

“As long as Sri Lankan armed forces remain in Jaffna, the door for peace talks will remain shut tight,” Prabhakaran said over the Tigers’ clandestine radio Sunday. “The LTTE will not succumb to a deal at the point of a gun.”

Prabhakaran is an 8th-grade dropout who was trained as a guerrilla in Lebanon at a camp run by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He dreams of creating an independent homeland for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority in the north and east of the Indian Ocean island nation.

Like many of the mostly Hindu Tamils, the Tiger leader accuses Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese community, which is overwhelmingly Buddhist, of systematic discrimination and exploitation.

To force Prabhakaran to seek peace, the government’s plan, as explained by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in an interview in June, is to latch on to the Tigers and maul them as badly as possible.

Few doubt that sooner or later the army will retake Jaffna, which the Tigers had turned into their capital with their own courts, police and social services. But in recent weeks, it has become increasingly evident that possession of the city won’t be enough to end Sri Lanka’s 12-year-old civil war, in which as many as 50,000 people have died.

“The government is trying to reintroduce the political process, but it is still not evident that LTTE is interested in negotiations,” said Jayadeva Uyangoda, a political science professor at the University of Colombo and a well-connected commentator. “The most likely scenario is that the LTTE will get back to guerrilla warfare.”

That thought should be enough to give Sri Lankan officials sleepless nights, given the Tigers’ proven efficacy in sabotage and assassination operations. On Oct. 20, right after Operation Sunshine started, Tiger suicide commandos bombed and set ablaze the largest oil depot in Colombo, causing more than $20 million in damage.

Suicide bombers loyal to Prabhakaran are blamed for a number of spectacular assassinations, including those of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and former Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

With a bounty of half a million dollars placed on his head by the government, Prabhakaran has vanished into the jungle. On Sunday, he dismissed the seemingly inevitable fall of Jaffna and other recent Tiger reverses as “setbacks which will be turned into successes in the future.”

Government figures now put Tiger deaths from Operation Sunshine at around 1,600. Even if those numbers aren’t inflated, as many suspect, it’s hard to tell how much the offensive has hurt the Tigers. Some well-informed sources have put the Tigers’ strength at 17,000.