Tigers take to the jungle as Jaffna falls

It took the Sri Lankan army 50 days to slog nine miles through swamps and rice paddies, dodging snipers and mines. The government lost over 450 soldiers, and a third of its air force was destroyed. But in the end, the Sri Lankan forces conquered the rebel citadel of Jaffna.

For the first time in five years, the flag of Sri Lanka, a snarling golden lion, was hoisted over a 400-year old Dutch fort. Until yesterday, Jaffna had been the centre of a mini-state set up in northern Sri Lanka by the Tamil Tiger rebels. The autocratic rebels ran their own schools, judged "traitors" in their courts, raised war taxes and drummed up an army of teenagers. For many Tamil militants, the loss of Jaffna town was a devastating blow to their dreams of Eelam, an independent homeland.

While the flag was unfurled in Jaffna, people elsewhere in Sri Lanka celebrated this turning point in the 12-year ethnic war between the Sinhalese and the Tamil minority by shooting off fireworks in the streets. The government feared that Sinhalese mobs, drunk on cheap arrak and the triumph over the Tigers, might attack Tamil communities in the capital, Colombo, and elsewhere on the island. But this did not happen. Martial music played on Sri Lankan radio for most of the day.

"This is not the end of the war. Very soon, we will totally defeat and annihilate the separatist terrorists," said the deputy defence minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte.

He and his generals had flown to the Jaffna ceremony at considerable risk; Tigers have downed at least four military planes with missiles and anti-aircraft guns, in jungle areas and over water which had supposedly been cleared by the army.

The minister was only partly right. Victory in Jaffna, indeed, does not signal the end to this war which has cost over 38,000 lives: vanquishing the Tigers may prove impossible militarily. Even as Sri Lankans rejoiced over the capture of Jaffna yesterday, a Tiger suicide killer drove a lorry piled with explosives into a police camp at Amparai, hundreds of miles away from the Jaffna battle zone. The police got off lightly, only one man being injured.

Without Jaffna, the Tigers are crippled. Thousands of fighters were wounded in the defence of the town and they have had to be carted to underground hospitals hidden deep in the malarial jungle with no electricity and little medicine. But the rebels still control large swaths of the Jaffna peninsula and operate freely in the jungles of north and east Sri Lanka. Knowing that the military massed over 25,000 troops for the assault on Jaffna, the Tigers recently switched their attacks to more exposed targets in the east. Carpeted in dense jungle, the eastern provinces are ideal for guerrilla war.

The Tigers have another weapon: the Tamil civilians they herded out of Jaffna. Film clips released by the military on the conquest of Jaffna yesterday showed empty, blasted buildings with only a few hundred Tamils, old and sick, huddled in a school. The rest of the city had been forced by the Tigers to clear out. Over 400,000 Tamils are now in jungle refugee camps, and the Tigers refuse to let them return to Jaffna, as if to say to the government: you may have won the city, but you've lost the Tamil people.

Much as the Tamils would like to go back to their homes, farms and schools, now under the government control, few will dare to risk being branded by the Tigers as traitors.

Sri Lanka's President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, is trying to coax the Tigers back into peace negotiations. Generous in victory, she has repeated her offer to give the Tamils greater autonomy in the north and east, with the right to administer their own schools, land and police force.

Her next task is to have this package approved by parliament, which may be tricky, with Sinhalese nationalists opposed to it. And the Tigers' chief, Velupillai Prabakharan, says he will not negotiate "at the barrel of a gun".

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