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End to Sri Lanka’s 12-Year Civil War May Be in Sight

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The caldron of rice symbolizing nature’s yearly bounty is on the boil at the neighborhood temple, but for Kumar, the harvest of the last 12 months has been bitter.

A 75-year-old retired principal with a bad heart, he had to flee his home in the northern city of Jaffna, hobbling along as best he could on his bamboo cane, when army and air force units attacked to flush out armed Tamil separatists.

He has now come to Colombo, the capital, to seek shelter with his married son.

“We feel the same way as the Japanese when they were bombed during the war,” Kumar says. With his 68-year-old wife, he was able to carry away just two bags of clothes as the bombs and artillery shells fell around them.

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On this year’s Thai Pongal, a normally joyous festival for Sri Lanka’s Tamil Hindu minority, Kumar has come to the neighborhood temple, dropped a tablet of camphor in the sacred fire and clasped his hands to invoke the aid of the elephant-faced god Vinayagar.

“I want to go home,” the frail, toothless man says.

His suffering, unfortunately, is but a droplet in Sri Lanka’s ocean of pain and bloodshed. In the island nation’s 12-year-old ethnic civil war that cost Kumar his home and peaceful retirement, an estimated 39,000 people have died.

This autumn, 400,000 northern Tamils abandoned their homes in the face of an army offensive. Now they are living in other people’s houses or in the scrubby northern forests of the Vanni district--refugees in their own country.

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But there is a widespread feeling that a watershed also has finally been reached in the government’s long struggle against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tigers, some of the most successful, ruthless guerrillas in the world, have been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland for Tamils in Sri Lanka’s north and east.

In 1996, President Chandrika Kumaratunga assured her people this month, Sri Lanka’s national trauma should come to an end.

“It is our resolve to take all major steps to stop the terrible war within one year,” she said in her New Year’s message.

If Kumaratunga succeeds, the ensuing 12 months will go down as some of the most significant in the Indian Ocean island’s history.

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Last month, after a bitterly fought campaign, the Tigers lost their military citadel and administrative center, Jaffna, which was the center of their parallel civil service, courts and banks.

Sri Lanka’s army claims it killed 2,500 guerrillas, many of them boys and girls, and wounded up to 6,000 more. The Tigers, who could field 12,000 to 15,000 armed “cadres,” supposedly have had their fighting strength chopped in half.

The army said it lost 470 soldiers of its own and suffered 2,700 wounded.

Because the government banned journalists from visiting the war zone, verifying the numbers is impossible, as is verifying officials’ claims that fewer than 50 civilians died in the biggest offensive ever mounted against the separatists.

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As for the Tigers, they say they had only 500 dead, versus “thousands” for their foes.

Whatever the tolls, the victorious outcome of “Operation Sunshine” has brought a new swagger and confidence to the Sri Lankan army. Never have the Tigers looked so defeatable.

“I think very soon we’ll be able to push these people into the jungle,” predicted Brig. Sarath Munasinghe, the army spokesman. “We’ve been able to set them back by many years.”

To press the fight, the government has been on a shopping spree abroad: Three Soviet-model attack helicopters, a Chinese-made anti-submarine vessel to counter the threat of swimming suicide bombers, a trio of Israeli-made Kfir fighters and other tools of modern warfare have been bought and shipped in to make the Tigers bleed some more.

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But officials learned long ago to be wary of the committed group of guerrillas. Even if ending the war is now conceivable, even Munasinghe is not willing to agree with his president that it will come in the next 12 months.

Sixty members of Tiger suicide squads are believed to be roaming Colombo, hoping to find a chink in the security armor around Kumaratunga or other high-ranking officials, government officials say.

“This is sheer desperation, because they are aiming even at the leader of the opposition,” said Victor Fernando, the presidential press secretary. “What they want to do is destroy the leadership of the Sinhalese,” Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhist group.

Assassinations have been something at which Velupillai Prabhakaran, the 41-year-old leader of the Tigers, has proved his mettle. The Tamil militant is widely blamed for ordering a wave of spectacular suicide bombings, including the 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the 1993 killing of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa. As elusive as the hero of the Phantom comics that he loved when he was a boy, Prabhakaran is said to be somewhere in the Vanni forests plotting his next move.

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In October, Colombo had a reminder of the Tigers’ stealth and bravery when members staged a suicide attack on the capital’s petroleum tank farm that resulted in 26 deaths and the destruction of eight of 14 storage tanks and hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel and aviation fuel. The loss to the already war-sapped economy was estimated at $30 million.

Last year, more than 6% of Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product was lavished on the war, a drain proportionately the same as an annual expenditure of more than a third of a trillion dollars would be for the United States. And the Tigers are making no secret of their determination to make things even costlier for Sri Lanka’s military and economy.

“We will destroy southern economic targets,” Tiger theoretician Anton Balasingham vowed in a Dec. 30 broadcast from the group’s clandestine radio transmitter. “We will lay our hands on the supply routes of the army. We will obstruct the air and sea supply routes.”

As good as their word, the Tigers have destroyed more than 300 electricity transformers in Eastern province in recent weeks, the army says. The rail line to the port city of Batticaloa has been sabotaged three times.

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The Tigers are gambling that their renewed attacks in the east will force Kumaratunga’s government to shift troops there.

“When that happens, the strength of Jaffna will be weakened,” Balasingham said. “At that time, we will infiltrate into Jaffna and will launch attacks.”

Indeed, heavily armed troops backed by the air force launched a major offensive last week in Eastern province. The government announced over the weekend that they had destroyed the jungle base of the Tigers’ eastern commander, killing at least 15 rebels and wounding 20.

Officers who have won their ranks by fighting the Tigers say some of the most recent rebel attacks indicate that the rebels carrying them out are demoralized and unprofessional. But the government’s aim is not to wipe out the Tigers but to weaken them and reduce their support among Tamils.

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“Finally, there has to be a political solution,” Munasinghe says.

For that reason, even the capture of Jaffna was a hollow victory in a sense. Almost the entire population heeded Tiger advice or orders to leave. Only 6,000 people now live in the city, and returnees willing to trust in the goodness of the Sinhalese-dominated army have been few.

On Tuesday, Kumaratunga handed parliament her formal proposals for constitutional changes that would give the minority Tamils more say over the areas where they live. It is the beginning of a long road to national consensus that could take years.

But for the foreseeable future, political initiatives and military operations will go hand in hand.

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“Our essential task is to strike the right balance. You can’t have a political solution without a simultaneous military thrust,” said Justice Minister Gamini L. Peiris, a close Kumaratunga ally. “It’s just not possible, no matter what the intellectuals, nongovernmental organizations and do-gooders say.”


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