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SCENARIOS - Is Sri Lanka about to finish off the Tamil Tigers?
Reuters - Sri Lankan troops on Friday handed the Tamil Tiger rebels their second major defeat in a week, capturing the strategic Elephant Pass, the president said.
That comes a week after the army drove the separatist guerrillas from their self-proclaimed capital of Kilinochchi, an event that had many asking if the quarter-century war is over. Not yet, but here are some scenarios of what could happen:
FONSEKA'S MARCH TO THE SEA:
With Kilinochchi and the entire Jaffna Peninsula now in army hands, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are confined to a fast-shrinking wedge of northeastern Sri Lanka of about 330 square km.
The military and analysts say the Tigers are shifting their heavy weapons and toughest fighters to the eastern port of Mullaittivu for a final stand.
With Elephant Pass back in army hands, the A-9 highway is now open for a mechanised division to join the units converging on Mullaittivu from all sides.
Much as U.S. civil war Major-General William Tecumseh Sherman made the Confederate army surrender by forcing them to all but jump in the sea at Savannah, Georgia, army commander Lt-Gen. Sarath Fonseka plans to do the same to the Tigers at Mullaittivu.
Since the Tigers wear vials of cyanide around their neck in case of capture, surrender seems unlikely.
ARE THE TIGERS NOW TOOTHLESS?
Many analysts say the rebels are down to around 2,000 capable fighters and have little future as a conventional force.
The military is now much better equipped and trained than in the past, has President Mahinda Rajapaksa's full backing and experienced, confident leadership in the form of his brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajaksa, and Fonseka. Both are combat veterans who fought on each other's flank earlier in the war.
The LTTE still can carry out suicide bombings in the capital Colombo, and is blamed for one right after Kilinochchi's fall.
Many fear more of the same. Fonseka has said he expects the hardest core of the Tigers to go underground and conduct hit-and-run attacks once the war nears its end. He also said the army is ready for that.
WHAT ABOUT CIVILIANS IN THE WAR ZONE?
Aid agencies estimate there are around 230,000 Tamil refugees in the shrinking war zone who are suffering without much shelter.
Rights groups accuse the Tigers of forcibly conscripting them as fighters or labourers. The LTTE denies that.
Many are afraid of government camps where they are scrutinised as potential LTTE sympathisers. Their presence could slow the offensive because the military has pledged no civilian casualties, keenly aware that too many could prompt India or other international powers to press a ceasefire, as has happened in the past.
IS INDIA GOING TO INTERVENE?
Not a chance. Despite protest from Tamil politicians in India, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made it clear he has no plans to stop Rajapaksa's war.
Singh's government lists the LTTE as a terrorist group. After the Mumbai attacks by Islamist gunmen made terrorism a big issue in polls due by May, he is unlikely to be the least bit sympathetic.
He and Rajapaksa have agreed that grievances of the Tamil people must be dealt with politically, a view shared and urged by much of the west.
DOES MILITARY SUCCESS MEAN EARLY ELECTIONS?
Both the military and Rajapaksa are riding high on the war. Signs of early polls abound: the election budget this year has been quadrupled, polls are set in two provinces in February and the main opposition United National Party (UNP) has assumed a campaign stance.
Allies say there are plenty of factors that will influence Rajapaksa's decision on timing. He is aware that the UNP's main criticism is the state of the $32 billion economy.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE ECONOMY?
As predicted, both the Colombo Stock Exchange and the sliding rupee currency got a boost from Kilinochchi's capture.
But they both went straight back to moving on their own fundamentals as they have throughout the quarter-century war.
Both have recorded impressive performances in that time, but have been hampered in the last year by a gloomy macroeconomic climate.
Sri Lanka is suffering from expensive short-term foreign debt, declining forex reserves and a high deficit. Key exports like tea and garments are also hit by the global slowdown.
Despite a sovereign rating cut last month, most analysts say default is unlikely. The government said growth was likely to slow to 5.0-5.5 percent this year.
IS ANY OF THAT A RISK TO RAJAPAKSA?
Not really. His mainly rural power base has been largely shielded from economic woes through populist budgets and development projects.
Rajapaksa is also counting on a flood of post-war reconstruction money to come in after fighting ends.
That could be complicated by two attacks on the media this week, which has infuriated many donor nations -- who have yet to apply the only real leverage they have -- money.
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