Tigers Triumphant

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A northern offensive by Sri Lanka's rebels has put embattled President Kumaratunga in a tight spot

The war in Sri Lanka has been long and hot. At least 60,000 people have been killed in nearly 18 years of fighting between government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, which wants an independent Tamil homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Peace talks have never gone anywhere, largely because of the LTTE's intransigence. Even when the pitched battles have simmered down, the Tigers have kept up a campaign of brutal bombings and assassinations.

Now the action has returned to the battlefield, and the LTTE looks ascendant. On April 22, the Tigers managed to capture a military garrison at Elephant Pass, an isthmus that connects the northern Jaffna peninsula to the rest of Sri Lanka. The Tigers are now ready to move north and retake Jaffna, which they controlled from 1990 to 1995. (The peninsula is dominated by ethnic Tamils, who comprise 12.5% of Sri Lanka's population, and it would be the center of any autonomous region won by the Tigers.) Some 25,000 soldiers are now trapped in Jaffna.

Sri Lanka's ability to hold the peninsula is doubtful: 10,000 government soldiers failed to defend Elephant Pass from 4,000 Tigers, and thousands of troops retreated northward. The government doesn't have enough ships or transport planes to evacuate its forces before the Tigers start their assault. But the LTTE is waiting to see if President Chandrika Kumaratunga can get the troops out before a wholesale slaughter ensues. I don't think the LTTE wants to kill all those soldiers, says Subramaniam Sivanayagam, editor of the pro-LTTE monthly Hot Springs, which is published in London. But what they do want is the troops out of Jaffna.

The assault has put Kumaratunga, too, in a dangerous spot. Last week, in the dead of night, her government announced new wartime measures and civic restrictions. When Sri Lankans awakened the next morning, they found that it was illegal to criticize the government or hold rallies, that censorship of the local press had been extended to foreign correspondents and that all nonessential development spending was to be immediately redirected to the military. Kumaratunga begged for weapons and ammunition from abroad, and arms dealers from China, Israel, Iran, Russia and Ukraine flew into Colombo, the country's capital, to strike deals.

At mid-week, Sri Lanka also begged neighbor India to provide military aid, including ships to evacuate troops from Jaffna and fighter planes to provide air cover. The last time India got involved in the Sri Lankan war the results proved catastrophic for both sides. Between 1987 and 1990, 70,000 Indian soldiers controlled a third of the country in an unsuccessful attempt to force a solution to the war. India lost 1,000 troops in the peacekeeping operation, and a Marxist terrorist group, exploiting public opposition to the foreign presence, nearly overthrew the Sri Lankan government. The Indian troops were ordered out when a new President was elected. A year later, India's former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tiger suicide bomber for his role in dispatching the force. Not surprisingly, India this time has flatly refused to help evacuate the Sri Lankan soldiers.

Domestic political considerations make it almost impossible for Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to provide any other military aid. He governs in a coalition, and some of his partners are Tamil parties from southern India that sympathize with their ethnic brethren and not with Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese population. But New Delhi is also worried that both Pakistan and China have responded more warmly to Sri Lankan overtures, which could increase their influence in the Indian Ocean region.

Kumaratunga lost the use of her right eye in a bomb blast almost certainly masterminded by the LTTE last December, a few days before she was reelected to a second term as President. Now she may lose Jaffna and much else besides. The army seems inept and almost certainly unable to win the war. The LTTE, having overrun so many military bases, is now considered better armed than the government. Thanks to Kumaratunga's press censorship, the majority of Sri Lankans didn't even know of the three-week battle at Elephant Pass until the rout was complete. Now they're scared. I am wondering whether we can ever get over this, says a security guard working in Colombo. Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran told his faithful last November that 2000 would be the year of war. He has kept his promise.

Reported by Waruna Karunatilake/Colombo and Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi