(For a related Q+A, see [ID:nCOL428628])
By C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO, March 25 (Reuters) - If the last act in Sri Lanka’s 25-year war is now playing out, the only question left is whether it ends in siege or slaughter.
There is little doubt Sri Lanka’s military will shortly destroy the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a conventional fighting force.
But fears abound for tens thousands of civilians held inside a 25 square km (10 sq miles) patch of coastal scrubland, all that remains of the Tigers’ dreams for a separate state for Tamils.
Since January, diplomats in Colombo have been working furiously to persuade the LTTE to let civilians out of a military no-fire zone and to get the government to throttle back its assault.
Among the worst-case scenarios are that thousands could be killed in a final assault, or slaughtered by the rebels themselves in a bid to blame the government. The most bleak outlook sees the LTTE, which perfected suicide as a weapon, enacting an apocalyptic mass suicide.
“It is a like a bank heist where everything has gone wrong,” a Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.”The people and the crooks are inside, and the police are outside, but the wrong thing would be for the police to go rushing in with guns.”
External interference appears remote. China and Russia last week opposed having Sri Lanka discussed at the U.N. Security Council and neighbouring India’s only intervention has been to send aid and a medical team to help the displaced.
Sri Lanka appears willing to soak up international pressure to achieve a long-elusive victory, said Reva Bhalla, director of global analysis for U.S. private intelligence firm Straftor.
“Colombo has the opportunity of a lifetime before them and they didn’t get this far to get set back by civilian casualties,” Bhalla said.
Sri Lanka’s military has declined to reveal its plans for when troops reach the no-fire zone, now a few kilometres (miles) away. It says it is already providing safe passage for those who escape, noting 10,500 have fled in the last 10 days alone.
Diplomats concede the only option left, given the LTTE’s intransigence, is to urge the military to lay a siege instead of carrying out an assault that would risk civilian harm.
“The only sensible thing you can say in the present circumstances is that there are laws of war, and sieges are one acceptable method that have a long, mostly successful history,” a European diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Some fear the Tigers could carry out a deadly final act if founder Vellupillai Prabhakaran is cornered. He and his followers wear vials of cyanide to be taken in case of capture.
“Cult leaders, when everything is collapsing around them, want to take everything with them,” said John Thompson, director of the Mackenzie Institute for the Study of Terrorism, Revolution and Propaganda, in Canada.
Another fear is that the LTTE could carry out a mass slaughter and blame the government, hoping to galvanise support from the Tamil diaspora that has sponsored much of its activities, the European diplomat said.
Sri Lanka’s government runs the risk of stirring further anger and distrust among Tamils, former U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi wrote in an International Herald Tribune opinion titled “A Slaughter Waiting to Happen”.
“The indiscriminate killing of its own citizens will make it harder for Colombo to seal its military victory with post-conflict reconciliation and development of the Tamil-majority north,” Brahimi wrote.
He urged the Tigers to free those trapped, and for international powers to push the government to contain the LTTE leadership instead of annihilating it.
One option that was briefly floated was to get U.S. Marines to help with an evacuation. In a statement, the U.S. embassy said a team from Pacific Command made an assessment last month at the Sri Lankan government’s request.
But the plan hinged almost entirely on the LTTE’s agreement, and has been shelved since that wasn’t forthcoming, diplomats and Sri Lankan officials say. (Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington; Editing by David Fox)