- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

NEW DELHI — Bloodshed has intensified since the Sri Lankan government scrapped a cease-fire agreement with ethnic Tamil separatists earlier this month, with government officials planning an “all-out” effort to end one of Asia’s deadliest civil wars.

An aggressive push by government forces over the second half of 2007 forced the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to abandon their eastern stronghold and regroup in the far north of the small war-torn island, where fighting is now concentrated.

With the rebels cornered, military leaders think a total victory may be several months away.

“We have started our thrust from all sides,” Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s defense minister, was quoted as telling the Sinhala-language Lanka-deepa newspaper. “It is done in a systematic manner. We don’t plan to stop.”

Sri Lanka’s government said Tuesday that its soldiers had advanced into territory held by Tamil Tiger rebels in the north of the island, with the death toll from two days of fighting at 69, said a dispatch by Agence France-Presse from the capital, Colombo.

The rebels, meanwhile, accused the army of setting off a roadside bomb in the north that killed 11 children and six adults and wounded 17 others who were traveling on a school bus, Agence France-Presse reported.

Journalists were prohibited from entering the area and could not verify the claims from either side.

On Jan. 16, Sri Lanka formally broke the Norway-brokered 2002 Cease Fire Agreement, which kept the a shaky peace for three years until hostilities escalated in mid-2006.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa cited the Tamil rebels’ ongoing efforts to build up their military capacity and continued attacks on civilians and government officials.

The Tamil rebels were guilty of more than 3,000 documented cease-fire violations up until December 2006, compared with about 350 by the government, according to the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission.

The government decision to end the cease-fire was met with muted criticism by international mediators hoping to bring an end to the 25-year conflict, as sympathies for the Tiger rebels appear to have eroded by their use of suicide tactics that often targeted civilians.

Just hours after the truce ended, 26 persons were killed and at least 60 more were injured when a bomb exploded on a bus carrying mostly schoolchildren about 150 miles south of the capital, Colombo.

Those who tried to flee on foot reportedly were shot.

In the previous two weeks, a roadside land-mine blast killed Construction Minister D.M. Dassanayake and a prominent opposition parliamentarian was fatally shot in a Hindu temple in the capital. Tamil Tigers are suspected in each of the attacks.

About 70,000 people have died since the Tamil Tigers began a separatist campaign in 1983 to carve out a homeland for the ethnic minority Tamil population, which accounts for about 12 percent of the population, compared with a 74 percent ethnic Sinhalese majority.

Rebel ranks are said to hold between 3,000 and 6,000 trained fighters.

According to U.N. estimates, more than 1 million people have been displaced by protracted fighting and natural disasters since 1990, most of whom languish in refugee camps where kidnapping and looting are common.

Observers fear that the military’s commitment to “destroy” the Tamil insurgency, the abandonment of a political solution to the conflict and a global preoccupation with troubles in nearby Pakistan will open the door to unprecedented violence in the coming months, forcing thousands more from their homes.

Mr. Rajapaksa told a press briefing Tuesday that “there must be a political solution” to the conflict, but added that it could not be reached “with terrorists.”

In his annual Martyrs Day speech in late November, rebel leader Prabhakaran said he did not think a political settlement could be reached after the chief of his political wing was killed in a Sri Lankan air force attack.

However, he toned down the usual war rhetoric and instead blamed the international community for “unjust conduct” that has “severely undermined the Tamil people” — a veiled reference to setbacks beyond the battlefield.

The Tamil Tigers, outlawed by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization, has faced increased pressure abroad as foreign governments clamp down on its overseas arms-buying and financial support structure.

In April, U.S. counterterrorism authorities arrested the Tigers’ suspected U.S. director, who was accused of operating a front organization said to have held several fundraising events at a church and public schools in the New York City area.

More than a dozen other rebel-related suspects were arrested in the past year, including a Baltimore-based ring whose members pleaded guilty to exporting surface-to-air missiles and other weapons to the group. Similar arrests have been made in France and Australia.

A report released by the FBI classified the Tigers as “one of the most dangerous and deadly extremist [groups] in the world.”

It noted the Tigers’ pioneering of suicide tactics, use of women in suicide attacks, and successful assassination of two world leaders — Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa — has inspired terrorist networks as far-flung as al Qaeda in Iraq.

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