Wed, Sep 05, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lankan government denies Tamil offensive

MIXED SIGNALS While Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapske said last week that areas militants control would be liberated, other officials said that there were no such plans

AP , COLOMBO

Sri Lanka's government has denied it is preparing to launch an offensive to drive Tamil rebels out of their fortified heartland in the north -- a move analysts warn would exact a heavy death toll.

Speculation has been mounting that the military might push into the dense jungles of the Vanni -- as the rebel stronghold is known -- after soldiers captured a sliver of rebel territory over the weekend.

Analysts warned, however, that a move to retake the Vanni would be far more difficult -- and bloodier -- than the army's campaign against the rebels in the east and the government may not have the military or political strength to pull it off, analysts say.

The government has been sending mixed signals about its intentions in recent days, with Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse saying: "The government is determined to liberate the remainder of the uncleared areas in the Vanni ... the same way it liberated the east," the government-owned Daily News reported last week.

Other officials contradicted Rajapakse's comments, saying they were not planning an offensive.

On Saturday, however, government troops raided a pocket of rebel-controlled land just south of the Vanni and captured it the next day.

"We are not on an offensive, we have kept the doors open for peace negotiations," government security spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said on Monday, adding that the government would not wait forever for such talks to materialize.

"If they will keep on terrorizing, than we will handle the situation. We have got to liberate the innocent civilians," he said.

Rajapakse declined to comment on Monday, saying he was in meetings with military commanders throughout the day.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for more than two decades to carve out a homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority in the north and east of the nation in the face of historic discrimination by majority Sinhalese dominated governments. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting, 5,000 of them since a 2002 cease-fire collapsed 22 months ago.

The government began a major drive to push the rebels out of their scattered bases in the east and announced in July it had recaptured the region for the first time in 13 years.

Any offensive in the Tigers' heartland in the north would be far more difficult, especially with thousands of troops still required to patrol the east, analysts said.

"To take it will require a heavy cost and to hold onto it would be very costly," said Jehan Perera of Sri Lanka's National Peace Council, a think tank.

In the east, the army was aided by the defection of a top Tiger commander known as Karuna, who brought thousands of fighters as well as knowledge of the terrain with him. The rebel-controlled areas are isolated from each other and the region is ethnically mixed.

The Tigers -- a cult-like army whose fighters hang cyanide capsule around their necks, preferring suicide over capture -- are in firm control of the north, where they hold a fortified, contiguous area that is mostly Tamil and easily resupplied by its shipping network.

"We are not operating in the north as we did in the east," Tiger spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan said, explaining that the group could not send reinforcements to their isolated troops in the east.

The rebels are dug into heavily guarded positions in the north, he said in a telephone interview.

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