A new wave of air and naval combat is likely in Sri Lanka as government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels step up battles that have killed more than 5,000 people since peace talks collapsed, analysts say.
Defence officials say the military is planning to buy MiG-29 supersonic jet fighters, Mi-24 helicopter gunships and bigger guns for navy fast attack craft to counter growing threats from the rebels at sea and in the air.
“There is very little chance of reviving the peace process,” said Sunanda Deshapriya, a director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, describing the February 2002 truce as all but dead.
“I don’t think it is possible to salvage the ceasefire. We will see more fighting in the months to come.”
The Tigers ended a month-long lull in their attacks last week with the launch of a major sea-borne assault that saw the brief fall of a strategic naval facility on remote Delft island off Jaffna in the north.
Both sides suffered casualties, but defence sources said the bigger loss to the military was a coastal radar station at Delft that was used to track gunrunning across the narrow Palk Straits between India and Sri Lanka.
“The Tigers demonstrated their sea-going capability with the attack on Delft island,” defence columnist Namal Perera said. “Their bomb attack in Colombo on the same day also showed that their guerrilla capability is intact.”
The state-run Daily News said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were preparing to carry out more attacks because they were “desperate” after losing territory in the east of the island in recent months.
The paper’s defence column, which reflects official military policy, said the Delft attack was aimed at recapturing Jaffna, which they ran as a de facto separate state for five years until they were forced out in December 1995.
“The incident in Delft... clearly indicates that the LTTE has not given up their idea of capturing Jaffna, which is considered the nerve centre of their activities,” the Daily News said.
The Tigers, whose decades-long fight for independence has claimed 60,000 lives, made an abortive land-based attack in Jaffna in August last year.
“Jaffna could be under threat if the islets are subjected to regular attacks,” retired Brigadier General Vipul Boteju said. “The Tigers are trying to stretch military resources and weaken the war effort.”
The military advanced its plans to buy new aircraft after the Tigers launched their first air strike against the country’s main military airbase in March, using low-flying, radar-evading single-engine light aircraft.
The guerrillas have carried out four such attacks using Czech-built Zlin-143 propeller-driven planes, taking their armed struggle to a new level.
Diplomats say both the Tigers and the Colombo government appear to be convinced that a military victory is possible—meaning the violence could spiral in the weeks ahead.
The LTTE’s political wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan also announced last week that the Tigers would not resume peace talks—which collapsed in October 2005—unless the Sri Lankan military calls off its current offensive.
In its annual report released last week, Amnesty International said the human rights situation in Sri Lanka has “deteriorated dramatically” in 2006, expressing fears for civilians caught in the crossfire.
“Unlawful killings, recruitment of child soldiers, abductions, enforced disappearances and other human rights violations and war crimes increased,” Amnesty said.
“Hundreds of civilians were killed and injured and more than 215,000 people displaced by the end of 2006,” it added, echoing fears expressed by UN organisations and other rights groups.
British high commissioner Dominick Chilcott said: “The only solution to this massive disruption of civilian life in Sri Lanka is for all sides to immediately bring the violence to an end.”