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Tamil Rebels Seek Big Prize in War

May 20, 2000

NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ Hungry for victory, columns of Tamil rebels are knocking at the gates of an ancient city guarded by 40,000 tired and dispirited Sri Lankan soldiers.

Jaffna, a city inhabited by Tamils for centuries and a major port for European colonialists since the 16th century, is the biggest trophy in the South Asian island nation’s 17-year civil war. The separatist Tamil Tigers, who ran a virtual state from Jaffna from 1990-95, are closer to retaking their former capital that at any time in the last five years.

The city’s loss by a sagging army would be a watershed in the conflict, and could lead to electoral defeat this year for President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has promoted an autonomy plan for Sri Lanka’s 3.2 million minority Tamils.

``This is a setback,″ said retired Gen. Dennis Perera, former chief of the Sri Lankan army. Perera, however, said the city’s fall would not be a final defeat for the government.

Rebels have closed in on the city, and in the past two days have sowed fears among government forces by firing artillery at the Palali air base and the Kankesanturai port area _ the only two functional supply lines for 40,000 troops defending Jaffna. Until now, the government considered these key bases impregnable.

On Friday, the rebels warned Jaffna’s 500,000 residents to flee to safety.

In the capital, Colombo, Kumaratunga called the offensive ``a decisive moment in the war″ and encouraged her soldiers to ``wipe out the (rebels) completely.″

Capturing Jaffna would give the rebels a position of strength in peace talks being sponsored by Norway. A Norwegian peace mission was due in the Sri Lankan capital today.

Military observers are trying to analyze how 5,000 rebel fighters could beat back 40,000 Sri Lankan government soldiers supported by jet bombers, artillery, helicopter gunships and a navy.

``What is surprising is how a large force of Sri Lankan troops, nearly twice the number required to defend and hold Jaffna, have fared″ against the rebels, said retired Gen. Amarjit Singh Kalkat, who led a 50,000-strong Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka that fought the Tamil Tigers in the late 1980s.

``Probably the only problem is that the army’s morale has collapsed,″ Kalkat told The Associated Press. ``There’s poor leadership, lack of training and lack of motivation.″

Over the past year, the rebels have steadily advanced, capturing hundreds of soldiers and demoralizing government forces.

It has been a costly war for the army: Officials say that since 1983, 14,000 troops are dead, 6,000 wounded and an estimated 10,000 are missing in action. Over 60,000 lives have been lost in the war since fighting began in 1983.

According to several estimates, 10 to 15 percent of soldiers leave the force each year. Heavy casualties are making the army an unattractive career option for the nation’s youth, even those from poor families. Early this year the army advertised in newspapers for young men to join its elite commando corps on a walk-in basis.

``There is a lot of fatigue. ... Troops are fighting continuously for months and years without end, without break or recreation,″ Perera said in a telephone interview from Sri Lanka, where the government has censored all news reporting on the war.

The rebels, who have a special wing of suicide bombers, seem unaffected by losses. Human rights activists say thousands of children, including girls as young as 10, are used as soldiers by the rebels, and even under mortar fire they drag the bodies of their dead from the battlefield. Their code name for the assault on Jaffna is ``Operation Unceasing Waves.″

Led by their elusive and feared leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, they are seen by some as an efficient, tough, resource-rich outfit that resembles an army more than a militant group. Kalkat described the Tamil Tigers as the ``deadliest militant organization in the world.″

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