Lankan war outcome appears as uncertain as ever | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 25, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 25, 2008

News Analysis

Lankan war outcome appears as uncertain as ever


A Sri Lankan army soldier (R) checks the identity card of a bus passenger at a terminus in Colombo yesterday, the day after a bomb blast inside a bus on the outskirts of the capital as part of a tight security clampdown in anticipation of continued Tamil rebel attacks.Photo: AFP

The battle lines are clearly drawn in Sri Lanka with the government vowing to finish off the Tamil rebels, but after decades of bloodshed a final outcome appears as uncertain as ever.
While politicians from President Mahinda Rajapakse down have buried a truce deal and promised to wipe out the "terrorists," the military is now scaling down the rhetoric.
"Most definitely, we can say that we are winning," army spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told AFP.
"But we have never said that we will finish them off. We have never set deadlines. We are fighting a terrorist organisation, not a conventional war."
The army has pushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) out of the east of the island and gone on the offensive in the north in the past year.
But military sources say that the attacks on three fronts against rebel-held territory have failed to produce a breakthrough.
"We can weaken them," the brigadier said. "The more we weaken them, then the more they will come into negotiations. It is not possible to wipe them out."
Army chief Sarath Fonseka renewed the rallying cry this month as the government ruled out any peace talks and offered instead a unilateral settlement, but he too sounded far less gung-ho than previously.
"I don't conduct the war looking at deadlines and timeframes," the lieutenant general said. "Can a war that has been going on for more than 25 years be completed by March?"
But Fonseka had repeatedly given deadlines before, claiming the war would be won by mid-2008. Senior defence officials have also boasted that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran will soon be dead, if he is not already.
And there is confusion over casualty figures.
The defence ministry releases daily death tolls suggesting the army is on a victory march, although physical evidence of rebel corpses is usually missing.
The thousands of rebels declared dead in the past two years would amount to the total annihilation of the LTTE, according to the military's own intelligence estimates.
Fonseka corrected himself on the numbers of LTTE combatants on February 10, noting the LTTE had 5,000, or 2,000 more than he had announced in December.
Massaging the figures may just be part of the propaganda war targeting a domestic audience long since weary of the separatist conflict that has left tens of thousands dead since 1972.
Commentators certainly suspect that is so. The only picture of what happens on the battlefield comes from the government, which blocks non-military access to rebel territory.
Military sources note that while the army announces repeated offensives leaving high numbers of enemy dead, on the ground the rebels melt away under attack and the army pulls back when real resistance is encountered.

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