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Sri Lanka's rebels, suicide bombing pioneers, are in retreat

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — After 25 years of civil war, Sri Lanka's army appears to be on the verge of a decisive victory against separatist rebels who pioneered suicide bombing.

A multi-pronged offensive launched in early January led to a rapid collapse of the rebel Tamil Tiger group's control of what had been near-autonomous territory on this idyllic island state in the Indian Ocean. Now the rebels are on the run, and the government is demanding that they allow civilians under their control to flee, a possible indication that the Sri Lankan army intends to fight them to the finish.

More than 70,000 people have died in this little-reported war, which began in 1983 as a rebellion by ethnic Tamils, who are Christians and Hindus and who originally sought the right to speak their own language from the Sinhala speaking majority, which is mainly Buddhist. A ragtag assault on Sri Lankan troops that year led to the brutal massacre of as many as 3,000 Tamils, and in 1984 the real civil war began.

It's been one of the most brutal conflicts on earth, with both sides often using a "take-no-prisoners" policy, which got still more lethal when rebel operatives developed a new tactic, suicide bombing, that's spread to the Middle East, Europe and well beyond.

A combination of greater motivation, better conditions for troops and new tactics helped bring about what one foreign diplomat in Colombo called "this indisputable military victory." The diplomat couldn't be named because he wasn't authorized to speak for his country.

One reason for the military's apparent success is that the government has united behind the new strategy; another is that support for the separatists dwindled as Western government labeled them terrorists and cracked down on contributions from the Tamil diaspora.

The first and biggest advance was the capture Jan. 2 of the rebels' de facto capital in Killinochchi, where they'd set up an administration with police, courts and guesthouses for visitors. Subsequently, army helicopters and fighter jets struck other towns that the rebels held, captured a strategically located isthmus called Elephant Pass and seized Mullaithivu, the last rebel-held town, on Jan. 25.

Leaders of the Tigers, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, are apparently still on the run, and government officials said founder Velupillai Prabhakaran and others might be hiding in the tropical jungle close to Mullaithivu. Eelam is the name the group gave to the state it had hoped to establish. At one point, the rebels held almost 30 percent of Sri Lanka's territory.

The main concern of international aid organizations is the 250,000 civilians who were caught in the crossfire. The civilians lived in areas that the rebels controlled and were the group's basis of support, often at the point of a gun. Now many fear that the rebels are using civilians as human shields to protect their leadership.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Thursday gave the Tigers 48 hours to allow civilians to pass to "safe zones" that the government had set up. The Tigers, however, who wear cyanide capsules around their necks to swallow in case they're captured, have never responded to demands from the Colombo government. Mahinda Samarasingha, the minister for human rights and disaster management, said Friday that the offer was only a "reprieve, not a cease-fire," implying that it will fight the Tigers until they capitulate and won't negotiate anymore in a series of truces.

The Tigers — supported by a wide Tamil diaspora, especially that of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu — at one point had 15,000 fighters. The rebels built their own replicas of submarines and gunboats modeled on the Very Slender Vessel — a new type of speedboat that had been undergoing sea trials for several NATO countries — and they even had a fledgling air force of five aircraft, two of which attacked the port in Colombo two years ago.

The Tigers didn't, of course, invent suicide bombing. But they developed some of most efficient suicide squads in the world, turning boats into bombs and anything on wheels into suicide craft.

India provided training and support for the rebels and even sent peacekeeping troops. But after a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at a rally in 1991, the Indian government withdrew its forces, declared the Tigers a terrorist group and backed out of any lead role in the conflict.

Norway took a lead role in mediation and helped the government and the rebels to negotiate a cease-fire in 2002.

However, after the election of Rajapaksa, an outspoken nationalist, in 2005 and the assassination of Sri Lanka's Tamil foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar in 2006 — apparently by the rebels — the cease-fire was in tatters. A Scandinavian war-monitoring mission said the Tigers were responsible for 1,313 violations, compared with 162 for the government. The government abandoned the cease-fire a year ago.

Reporters rarely have been able to travel into the conflict zone, and those who've been allowed to go on military-organized trips into the captured areas said they saw only jubilant soldiers. In Jaffna, a city that effectively had been under rebel control until early last month, at least 20,000 people took to the streets Saturday, demanding that the Tigers be put down and peace and order restored.

Jubilation may be premature. The army has declared victory before, and the Tigers merely went underground, only to reappear with renewed force.

(Sundarji is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

ABOUT THE TAMIL TIGERS

Until its apparent defeat by the Sri Lankan army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had been one of the world's most powerful and ruthless guerrilla groups. The United States and more than 30 other countries have listed it as a terrorist organization.

The Tigers were one of several separatist groups in the 1980s that launched a guerrilla war for independence for the northern and eastern provinces, home to most of Sri Lanka's predominantly Hindu Tamils. The separatists claimed years of persecution by the Sinhalese, the mostly Buddhist majority, which controls the central government.

The Tigers had their own air and sea wings, and they pioneered the use of the suicide explosive belt, female suicide bombers and the suicide cyanide capsule for captured fighters. They imposed ironclad discipline and strict segregation on their male and female fighters, and allegedly raised money through extortion, piracy and arms smuggling. They were accused of massacring numerous non-Tamils.

Founded and led by the reclusive Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers were for some time patronized by India. New Delhi reportedly provided the group with arms and training, and allowed it to establish camps in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

India sought to impose a peace accord on Sri Lanka in 1987. The Tigers refused to disarm in a political dispute with New Delhi and other Tamil groups, however, igniting a conflict with an Indian peacekeeping force deployed in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

— By Jonathan S. Landay

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