August 29, 2006

Sri Lanka army battles rebels in major offensive

By Peter Apps

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankan troops battled Tamil Tiger
rebels on Tuesday in a new offensive, jeopardizing the
evacuation of foreign nationals from the besieged north of the
island and threatening an escalation of the conflict.

The government offensive is aimed at forcing the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to vacate positions around Sampur
on the southern edge of Trincomalee harbor, from where they
have launched attacks on military shipping and shelled the
naval base.

"It's a major operation," a military source in the capital,
Colombo, told Reuters. "We want to capture Sampur."

August has been by far the most violent month since a 2002
ceasefire halted two decades of civil war. Hundreds of fighters
and civilians have been killed and more than 200,000 people
have fled their homes. War seems to have resumed in all but

"There is a big offensive going on from the Sri Lankan
armed forces," said S. Puleedevan, the head of the Tiger peace
secretariat. "They are trying to break through our ... lines."

In a separate clash, the army said it had recovered the
bodies of 16 Tiger fighters killed as they tried to infiltrate
government areas near the northern town of Vavuniya. Government
jets bombed rebel territory along the northeast coast.

As open fighting rages, secret abductions and killings
blamed on both sides continue. An ethnic Tamil radio station
manager was abducted in Colombo early on Tuesday, police said.
Five media workers, four of them Tamils, have been killed so
far this year.

"If this situation is going to continue, I don't think any
independent Tamil journalism will remain in this country," said
Free Media Movement convener Sunanda Deshapriya.

Trincomalee, in artillery range of the Sampur area, is the
port the military uses to resupply the besieged northern Jaffna
peninsula, cut off from the rest of the island by the rebels.


It was also used by the International Committee of the Red
Cross to evacuate 160 foreign nationals from Jaffna last

The ICRC wants to send a ship to pick up the several
hundred remaining foreign nationals, mainly foreign resident
Tamils trapped visiting relatives. The Tigers said this would
be difficult.

"We are discussing with the ICRC but the Sri Lankan army
offensive is jeopardizing this," said Puleedevan. "We are
firing mortars and artillery at the harbor so it is not safe."

Some diplomats say they believe the current army operation
south of Trincomalee is limited in scope and that ultimately
the army lacks the capacity to take Sampur. But truce monitors
are worried any new push could further escalate the conflict.

That could mean new flare-ups along other parts of the
front line in the north and east, or more attacks in the
majority-Sinhalese south and commercial heartland around
Colombo, tying down troops and shattering investor and tourist

The army said 13 soldiers had been killed and about 70
wounded in the first two days of the battle. At least 66 rebel
fighters had also been killed around Sampur, the army said.

The Tigers say 20 civilians are dead, along with 10 Tigers
and 50 soldiers. Independent verification is impossible.

After a month of fighting, front lines have barely moved.
Diplomats say the Tigers are no closer to their goal of an
ethnic Tamil homeland and the army is no closer to destroying
the LTTE.

"The Tigers are not just going to give up Sampur," said a
Western diplomat. "There are going to be landmines, defensive
positions and the avenues of approach are already going to be
dialed in to their artillery."

(Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal in COLOMBO)