Jan 7 Sri Lanka's military pressured the Tamil
Tiger's last stronghold on the northern Jaffna Peninsula from
the north and south on Wednesday, and the army said the
separatist rebels seemed to be pulling back. [ID:nCOL408072]
Since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) lost
their self-proclaimed capital of Kilinochchi to the army last
week, many are asking if the 25-year war is nearly over. Not
quite, but here are some scenarios of what could happen next:
SHOWDOWN IN THE EAST:
With Kilinochchi now in army hands, the LTTE is confined to
a wedge-shaped piece of northeastern Sri Lanka of roughly 600
square km (232 sq mile). Analysts have said the Tigers are
shifting their heavy weapons and toughest fighters to the
eastern port of Mullaittivu and a few towns in the jungle
between there and the central A-9 road. The next big army
target is Elephant Pass, the gateway to Jaffna. Winning it is
at once a matter of strategy and pride to the military, which
suffered one of its worst losses of the 25-year war there in
2000. If the military takes Elephant Pass -- and few doubt they
will -- all of its firepower can be aimed at Mullaittivu for a
ARE THE TIGERS NOW TOOTHLESS?
Many analyst 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. But the LTTE
still can carry out suicide bombings in the capital Colombo,
and did so hours after the government announced Kilinochchi's
fall, killing three airmen at air force headquarters. 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 ground 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
civilians who have fled their homes in the war zone, and are
suffering without much shelter. Rights groups last month
accused the Tigers of forcibly conscripting them as fighters or
labourers. The LTTE denies that. Many are afraid of government
refugee camps where they are scrutinised as potential LTTE
sympathisers. With most civilians in the Mullaittivu area, that
could slow the offensive because the military has pledged no
civilian casualties, keenly aware that too many could prompt
neighbouring India or other international powers to press for a
ceasefire as has happened in the past.
IS INDIA GOING TO INTERVENE?
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 major election issue in polls due by May, he
is unlikely to be the least bit sympathetic. He and Rajapaksa
have agreed that the underlying 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?
With the military riding high, Rajapaksa has plenty of
political support. 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 had said
Kilinochchi's fall was one possible trigger being considered by
Rajapaksa for an early poll, but had cautioned plenty of other
factors were in play. The UNP's main criticism is over the
government's handling of the $32 billion economy.
WHAT ABOUT THE ECONOMY?
As predicted, both the Colombo Stock Exchange .CSE and
the sliding rupee currency .LKR= 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, especially with popularity for the war so
strong. Rajapaksa's mainly rural power base has been largely
shielded from economic woes through his populist budgets and
development projects. Rajapaksa is also counting on a flood of
post-war reconstruction money to come in after fighting ends.
(Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by David Fox)