In Sri Lanka, an Empty — but Expensive — Threat

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The Sri Lankan army pays out a lifetime's salary to the families of its slain soldiers — and right now that policy may be set to place new strains on the defense budget. Tamil Tiger rebel forces reportedly broke through government lines near the town of Jaffna Wednesday, two days after President Chandrika Kumaratunga rejected a rebel truce offer allowing her troops safe passage out of the beleaguered Jaffna peninsula, vowing instead to defend the territory to the last man. The secessionist fighters, who regard Jaffna as the capital of their desired homeland of Tamil Eelam, last week delivered a crushing blow to the Sri Lankan military by overrunning its strategic Elephant Base complex at the gateway to the peninsula, killing some 350 government troops in the process, wounding more than 2,000 and leaving a further 350 missing in action. Government forces are now surrounded on Jaffna, and not even the arrival of new weapons supplies has held back the Tigers.

The battle raging around Jaffna underscores Sri Lanka's difficulty in containing a separatist insurgency that has raged for 17 years and claimed some 55,000 lives. The government remains committed to a two-pronged strategy of seeking to militarily defeat the guerrillas while offering greater political autonomy to the Tamil minority from which they're drawn. But Prime Minister Kumaratunga has struggled to secure domestic political support for the autonomy plan, let alone engender Tamil enthusiasm. And a military defeat of the Tigers looks more and more like wishful thinking. Israel is reported to have recently helped out the government with emergency weapons shipments, and the U.S. has reportedly been sending small numbers of specialists to train the Sri Lankan military since 1994. India, which previously helped the government in Colombo against the rebels but was asked to leave in 1995, is staying out of the conflict, although it has reportedly offered to help evacuate the beleaguered Sri Lankan forces. But right now Colombo's most useful international ally may be Norway, which has returned to play its familiar role of facilitating and mediating discussions between the government and the rebels they're unable to defeat.