Sri Lanka Presses Rebels, but at a Mounting Cost

Somini Sengupta
January 22, 2009

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NEW DELHI — As a potent military offensive by the Sri Lankan government whittles away one of the world’s shrewdest and most well-armed ethnic separatist armies, the cost of war is mounting, press freedom is shriveling and the political endgame remains as elusive as ever.

Over the past several months, the army has trounced the feared Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the country’s north, wresting control of rebel bunkers, office buildings and airstrips. This month alone, it seized two vital landmarks: the rebels’ erstwhile administrative capital, called Kilinochchi, and the isthmus called Elephant Pass, which connects northern Jaffna Peninsula to the rest of the island. Their territory fast shrinking, the Tamil Tigers now appear to be cornered in and around their northeastern garrison town of Mullaitivu.

The military gains are the deepest encroachment into rebel territory in a decade, and the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has promised to quash the Tamil Tigers. But even if the government manages to crush the group militarily, it will still need to find a political solution to the grievances among the island’s Tamil minority, and it has yet to clearly define what that solution might look like.

Even some of the government’s backers say that once the conventional war ends, the insurgents will just return to their roots and become guerrilla fighters once more.

Amid the current fighting, international aid agencies have sounded the alarm about the fate of 230,000 civilians trapped behind the front line. The passage of aid convoys, which ferry food and medicines to people living in rebel-held areas, has been interrupted by the recent fighting. Ambulances are sometimes unable to cross the front line. Dead bodies are piling up in hospital morgues.

On Thursday came reports that the Sri Lankan military shelled a makeshift hospital inside rebel territory. A pro-rebel news portal, TamilNet (, quoted a local health official as saying that 66 civilians had been killed in artillery and rocket attacks in the past three days, including one at a school that had been functioning as a hospital near Mullaitivu town.

There have been at least 11 Sri Lankan aerial attacks on or near hospitals inside the rebel-held areas between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15, according to a United Nations official who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak with the media.

The military denies that it is making civilians targets.

It is impossible to verify either side’s claims, because the government does not allow journalists access to the conflict areas, except on rare, carefully guided tours.

Civilians on the other side of the front line have few options. The rebels are accused of keeping them there as civilian shields. Those who have managed to slip out — an estimated 2,000 in recent weeks — are kept in army-guarded camps in government-controlled areas.

In a stinging rebuke, the United Nations on Thursday accused the Tamil Tigers, also known by their acronym, the L.T.T.E., of prohibiting staff members and their families from crossing the front line, calling it “a clear abrogation” of international law.

Separately, the United Nations this week leaned on both sides, urging the Tamil Tigers to let civilians leave the war zone and the Sri Lankan authorities to respect “international standards” in camps set up for those who do.

“After some time expect the L.T.T.E. to transit into an insurgency mode and mix guerrilla warfare and terrorism together,” said Ashok Kumar Mehta, a retired Indian Army general who was part of the ill-fated Indian peacekeeping mission in the late 1980s. “The absence of war is not peace.”

On Wednesday, a bomb strapped to a bicycle killed two and injured several more in the eastern town of Batticaloa. It signaled the Tamil Tigers’ ability to create mayhem even in areas from which they have been routed for nearly a year.

The government’s steady push into rebel lands has been accompanied by a dogged intolerance of critical reporting over the past two and a half years. Officials, including the defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a naturalized United States citizen, have accused journalists who write critically about military spending or strategy of being “traitors.” Several have fled the country.

Journalists have been beaten up, abducted and killed. One was hacked to death last May near his home in Jaffna. None of the cases have been solved.

Attacks on the press culminated earlier this month with the killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of The Sunday Leader. His brother, Lal, the chairman of the newspaper, said he wrote to the local authorities requesting protection. He said he had not heard back.

According to the International Press Institute, 15 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka since 2004.