July 31, 2008 / 6:27 AM / 11 years ago

Sri Lanka says military win may not wipe out rebels

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka may be close to a military victory over Tamil Tiger separatists, but the rebels could still wage a protracted low-intensity insurgency with hidden resources, a senior foreign ministry official said.

Sri Lankan army soldiers take part in an operation to regain territory from the Tamil rebels in Jaffna, about 396 kilometers north of Colombo, in this April 6, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Buddhika Weerasinghe

“Defeating the LTTE might not be the end of the story because an organisation like this might still have some resources hidden away,” Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona told Reuters in an interview.

“This might continue to be a problem for us.”

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which the United States classifies as a terrorist group, is fighting to create an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils in north and east Sri Lanka.

One of the deadliest contemporary civil wars, it has killed more than 70,000 people in a quarter of a century of fighting.

Often credited with perfecting the modern suicide bomb attack, the LTTE has conventional military capability as well, including a rag-tag air force and a navy with considerable firepower.

Kohona’s comments came amid increasing signs the military was gaining an upper hand with near-daily land, sea and air attacks, as part of a strategy to gradually retake the Tigers’ northern stronghold.

Analysts say the military had an advantage in the latest phase of the war given its superior air power, strength of numbers and swathes of terrain captured in the island’s east. But they still see no clear winner on the horizon.

Sri Lanka’s army commander, Sanath Fonseka, said last month the LTTE would lose all its territory in less than a year.

But Kohona warned it could still carry on a protracted hit-and-run insurgency with military hardware such as explosives-strapped speedboats and small arms saved from its present armed campaign.

“So the way we are trying to resolve this problem is ... by a combination of military and political means,” he said, hoping the Tigers would follow the example of a break-away rebel group that fought elections held after two decades in the east. “Hopefully it also sends a message to the (rebel-held) north that simply because you spent the better part of your life as a ruthless killer doesn’t mean you have to do so for the rest of your life.”

Kohona saw a “huge role” for the international community in the rebuilding of the country’s bombed-out north, saying Sri Lanka, a $26 billion economy, hardly had the resources for thorough reconstruction.

“Our resource base is not that extensive. our costs will escalate with the recovery of the last two districts in the north,” he said.

Sri Lanka is spending $200 million on reconstruction in the retaken eastern province and has received aid from such donors as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

But criticism of its human rights record has also seen the European Commission threatening last month to withhold 70 million euros ($45 million) in aid unless barriers to humanitarian assistance, including visas for international aid staff, were lifted.

Rights groups accuse Sri Lanka of doing nothing to halt abductions, killings and torture blamed on both government security forces and Tamil Tiger separatists.

“Many of these allegations are either founded on stories that have been addressed many months ago, sometimes years ago, and on other times on half truths and pure allegations, pure insinuations,” Kohona said.

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