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Tamils fear retribution as war reaches its climax

LTTE 'will still operate' despite military defeat

In a shop in Colombo's Bambalapitiya neighbourhood, the man stretched out on a sofa suddenly woke with a start. "They're not terrorists," he declared, correcting his friend's use of the word. "They're freedom fighters – 99.99 per cent of Tamil people support them but they are not in a position to show it."

As Sri Lanka's army squeezes the last remnants of the once potent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), such sentiments voiced within the Tamil community represent one crucial reason why this operation might not mark the end of the insurgency.

Analysts say that even if the rebels in the country's north-east are neutralised in the coming days, the movement will retain the capacity – and perhaps the public support – to launch terror strikes and suicide attacks.

"As a viable insurgency they are finished but they will still be able to operate as a terrorist organisation," said Bahukutumbi Raman, a former security advisor to the Indian government.

Despite international calls for a ceasefire, a bloody end appears the most likely outcome for the fewer than 1,000 rebels cornered in a two-square mile patch with up to 50,000 civilians.

A day after the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, called for a humanitarian ceasefire, the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, rejected their calls.

"The government is not ready to enter into any kind of ceasefire," he said. "It is my duty to protect the people of this country. I don't need lectures from Western representatives." The LTTE and its leader, Velupillai Prabakharan, said they would never surrender but called for international help to enforce a ceasefire.

"If any country really cares... I ask that country to go beyond its diplomatic boundaries for the sake of saving human lives and make Sri Lanka stop this genocidal war," the LTTE's political leader, Balasingam Nadesan, told the Associated Press.

It is impossible to accurately gauge the level of support for the LTTE. Fearful of the government and equally fearful of speaking out, most Tamils talk about suffering routine discrimination. They talk of their fear when passing through the ubiquitous check-points and how the troops might arbitrarily decide to detain them.

One university lecturer, who agreed only to speak on the telephone, said: "The police are always asking us what we are doing here. Why we are in Colombo. We are scared. In public places we have to speak Sinhalese. If you speak Tamil in a bus or market, people will stare."

This, of course, does not equate to support for the rebels' violent tactics. But on a walk through Bambalapitiya, replete with Hindu temples and flower sellers, practically everyone who agreed to speak voiced some degree of sympathy for the LTTE.

"The police... always assume we are the LTTE. Perhaps 75 per cent support the cause. There are also people who support the actions," said one Tamil shop-owner, who asked not to be named. Asked about Mr Prabakharan, the 29-year-old replied: "Perhaps 75 per cent of people like him."

The man who had been asleep, a 60-year-old former government worker, said that a series of administrations had passed measures that discriminated against the Tamils. "My own son and daughter have gone to the UK," he said. "The government plans to kill or destroy the Tamil people."

The Sri Lankan authorities say they are seeking to avoid civilian casualties and that the ongoing operation is to rescue civilians. While the UN has estimated that at least 4,500 civilians have been killed since January, the government has rejected reports that it has fired artillery into the area, or fired at a makeshift hospital.

Yet the government says it is taking steps to protect against possible LTTE strikes when the military operation is concluded. In an interview with The Independent, the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the brother of the President and the survivor of an assassination attempt in 2006, said: "That is why we have lot of checkpoints and roadblocks. All these things are going on because of that."