- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 14, 2007

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka

The government has won a major battle this week, but the fighting is far from over in one of the world’s longest, bloodiest civil wars.

Analysts say that the Sri Lankan military’s capture of the last Tamil Tiger rebel stronghold in eastern Sri Lanka is a major boost for the government, but one that could snare thousands of soldiers in a war of attrition.

The rebels, from the minority Tamil community, appear to have melted away from an area of dense jungle where troops said they had won a battle giving them control of the Eastern Province, an area of about 3,720 square miles considered the rebels’ last major stronghold in the region.

But the rebels retain power in the country’s north and can now resort to hit-and-run attacks in the east, despite losing both the battle near the lagoon town of Batticaloa and the provincial territory they formerly controlled, analysts said.

“It was a well-planned operation executed with minimum casualties,” retired Brig. Gen. Vipul Boteju said of the military advance, which involved months of aerial bombardments and ground attacks in the Thoppigala jungle.

“Troop morale is very high after this success, but holding the newly captured areas will require more men,” he said.

The government had control of the Eastern Province for the first time in over a decade, but there was still potential for trouble, the retired general said.

This is because captured territory needs to be consolidated, but the remaining rebels in the area have become a more elusive, almost invisible enemy.

“It will be difficult to prevent infiltration and hit-and-run attacks,” he said. “The [troop] numbers must be increased in the next three to four months or else there will be problems.”

Defense analyst Namal Perera also said the military success had created new problems for the government.

“Now that the entire Eastern Province is under government control, it must be responsible for law and order there,” Mr. Perera said.

That means more manpower to hold the newly controlled territory, he said.

The extra responsibility could force the military to delay offensives against the large Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ministate still operating in the north, he said.

“As long as the army is tied down in the east, the LTTE has an assurance that the military will not make a push for the north,” he said.

Sri Lanka’s drawn-out Tamil separatist conflict, which dates back over three decades, has shown that neither the rebels nor the security forces have enough men and material to fight simultaneously in the north and east.

The rebels are fighting for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in an area combining both northern and eastern provinces, which together account for about a third of Sri Lanka’s 25,000 square miles.

The LTTE conceded Thursday that its fighters had melted away from their eastern stronghold, but warned that they would carry out guerrilla attacks.

Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiriyan told reporters that it was a setback for them to lose the east, but they were strengthening their forces in the island’s north.

“Militarily, you can’t call this an advantageous situation [for the government],” Mr. Ilanthiriyan insisted. “Because if you want to control one region, you may have to lose control over another region.”

Sri Lankan troops once controlled the entire eastern region, including Thoppigala, and even oversaw local elections 14 years ago, but withdrew when a new government in 1995 decided to change strategy and make a move to capture the northern peninsula of Jaffna.

Government defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella also said that while the LTTE had suffered a major blow, the problems in the east were far from over.

The threat “is not completely eliminated because all they need is one terrorist to create trouble,” said Mr. Rambukwella.

Sunanda Deshapriya, the director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, an independent think tank, said the government also needed to come up with a new strategy for a political settlement quickly.

“The government can come out with a devolution plan now, or try to fight it out,” Mr. Deshapriya said. “In the absence of any peace moves, we will see this military success turn into a long-term burden for the state.”

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