Tamil Tigers cornered by Sri Lankan army

Rebels in desperate fight to defend last stronghold against government forces

Amid driving monsoon rain, a bitter and bloody battle is being fought for one of the Tamil Tigers' last strongholds - a battle that could mark a decisive turning point in Sri Lanka's 25-year-old civil war.

Government troops, buoyed by their recent capture of the entire western coast of the island, have been pressing to take control of the northern town of Kilinochchi. The town has been the Tigers' de facto headquarters and they are fighting desperately to hold onto it. In recent days, scores of troops on both sides have reportedly been killed.

Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, elected three years ago, has been adamant in his determination to destroy the Tigers. Reports suggest the man who formally pulled out of a long-failing ceasefire agreement in January is likely to use the success he has had so far to cement his political power by calling an early election. Analysts say such a move would held protect him from criticism over the country's badly stumbling economy

"Heavy fighting is going on in the three locations. The rain has started, but it will not affect the troops," said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara. "But the hazards faced by everybody will also be faced by troops."

He said that government troops were position about three miles north-west of the town and barely one mile to the south-west. "Soldiers are trying to negotiate the earth [wall] south of Kilinochchi, and are probing the defences," he added.

Yet other reports suggest the government may be losing higher than expected numbers of soldiers, both through fighting and desertion. An amnesty for deserters has recently been announced by the government in order to try and lure back those fleeing soldiers.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for an independent homeland for ethnic Tamils since 1983. They say since Sri Lanka's independence from Britain in 1948, Tamils have been routinely discriminated against by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority. The civil war, which has seen human rights abuses committed by both sides, has claimed at least 70,000 lives and probably considerably more.

The three-front push on Kilinochchi follows the government's capture two weeks ago of the northern town of Pooneryn, a strategic location that had been the hands of the Tigers since 1993. Government troops are also said to be attacking the Tiger-held towns of Paranthan and the eastern coast stronghold of Mullaittivu.

Observers say that both sides regularly inflate the number of casualties inflicted on each other. Independent verification of such reports are all but impossible given that both the government and the Tigers' refuse access for journalists. As a result, this long and dirty war is effectively being fought out in secret.

What is known is that the advance on the northern strongholds has left hundreds of thousands of people in a desperate situation. Amnesty International said last week that up to 300,000 people were trapped by the fighting and that the Tigers were even using civilians as a buffer against the encroaching government forces. "The humanitarian crisis in the Wanni region of northern Sri Lanka is worsening as the government fails to provide shelter and protect over 300,000 displaced civilians," it said.

Meanwhile another watchdog group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), yesterday said that pro-government militias operating in the "liberated" east of Sri Lanka a were responsible for a worsening wave of killings and child abductions. The group said that the TMVP, made up of former Tigers who switched sides and which emerged as the dominants political force after the Tigers fled the east last year, were responsible for at least 30 murders and 30 kidnappings in September and October.

"The Sri Lankan government says that the liberated east is an example of democracy in action and a model for areas recaptured from the [Tigers]," said HRW's Brad Adams. "But killings and abductions are rife and there is total impunity for horrific abuses."

In the east, part of the problem may be factionalism within the TMVP, with different factions loyal to Col Karuna Amman, the former Tigers' commander who created the organisation, and Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, known as Pillayan, who was appointed the chief minister of Sri Lanka's eastern province in May.

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