Page last updated at 11:23 GMT, Saturday, 22 November 2008

A fearful end to Sri Lanka's war?

Sri Lanka's government says it is nearing victory in its 25-year conflict with the Tamil Tigers, but as Roland Buerk explains the war will leave a bitter legacy.

Sri Lanka soldier in Madhu
Sri Lanka's government believes it is now winning the 25-year war
The Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter flew fast and low out of Anuradhapura, heading north.

The white domes of the ancient city's Buddhist temples stood high over the green canopy of the treetops.

Flares thumped out of tubes on the helicopter's side, bright red sparks trailed thick white smoke into the jungle just below, a defence against being shot down.

We were being flown to meet soldiers taking part in the military's offensive against the Tamil Tigers. Not too close to the battlefields though: Sri Lanka's government carefully controls access by journalists.

Stronghold seized

But it was still a chance to meet commanders on the ground. Lt Col KNS Kotuwegoda said the fighting was like Vietnam, bunkers and booby traps in the jungles.

Only a day or so before, one of his men lost a leg when he stepped on a landmine. But the Lt Col said morale was high and the troops were confident of inflicting a final crushing defeat on the Tamil Tigers, and soon.

For supporters of Sri Lanka's ethnic majority Sinhalese-led government these are the best of times. They scent victory after a generation of bloodshed and loss.

Kilinochchi Sri Lanka
The news from the battlefields of the north, or certainly the version given by the Ministry of Defence, has been relentlessly upbeat.

In recent months soldiers have driven the Tigers, who want a separate state for the ethnic Tamil minority, from the entire north-western coast.

They now seem poised to capture Kilinochchi from which the separatist rebels have administered areas under their control.

The fall of the town would be a hugely symbolic moment, although it would not mean the end of the war, not yet.

Guns glut

The government has pursued victory against the Tigers hard since fighting resumed in mid 2006 after a ceasefire failed. Perhaps too hard.

There are allegations of human rights abuses, abductions, killings and disappearances, especially in the east. There are an awful lot of guns there for a province that was, to quote the government, "liberated", from the Tamil Tigers last year.

As we drove down the main A15 road that runs parallel with the coast, but just inland, we were flagged down every few minutes by heavily armed soldiers and police officers at checkpoints.

They looked at our identity documents and sometimes poked around in the back of the van.

Bullet holes in a Sri Lankan building
Fighting resumed in 2006 after a ceasefire failed
In Sri Lanka's Eastern Province we passed police stations and small army camps that had been turned into mini fortresses with earth embankments, look out towers made of old railway sleepers and ammunition boxes, and roll after roll of razor wire.

And then there were the offices of the party now in power with the support of the government in Colombo, the TMVP. They were also heavily guarded.

Abduction claims

A breakaway faction of the Tamil Tigers, they still have guns too. We could see the barrels of assault rifles poking over the top of their look out towers.

Sometimes their men, wearing check shirts and rubber sandals, and a gun slung casually over the shoulder, would stand openly in the street.

One mother went to the local TMVP camp to ask for her son's release, and saw him with his hands tied and bearing marks of a beating

The TMVP's defection weakened the Tigers, who are themselves accused of serious human rights abuses, and helped government forces to drive the rebels from the east.

And even though they were still armed, the TMVP were allowed to run on a government ticket in provincial elections earlier this year.

They won, and a former Tamil Tiger child soldier is now Chief Minister of the East, but they have been accused of carrying out abductions and killings.

The woman we went to meet in her small bare concrete house outside the town of Batticaloa did not care much about politics, she just wanted her son back.

'Mothers of the disappeared'

As did the mothers of two boys who were taken with him, who we also met.

Mangy stray dogs leapt up, barking, from their dozing places under the trees of the otherwise bare sandy garden as we approached, before the lady of the house saw them off with a few well aimed stones.

Tamil Tigers (archive image)
The Tamil Tigers were driven from the east, and are losing the north
The women complained that a year ago their boys, in their late teens and early 20s, were taken away on suspicion of being involved with the Tamil Tigers.

One mother went to the local TMVP camp to ask for her son's release, and saw him with his hands tied and bearing marks of a beating.

But she was sent away after being told the young men would be released in the morning. However they were not and the women described going back fruitlessly again and again, as the days turned to weeks, then months, with no word on their fate.

Human rights groups say there have been hundreds of such cases reported in Sri Lanka in recent years, blamed on paramilitaries and elements of the security forces.

The government insists almost all are fabrications intended to discredit it and its new found allies, that alleged victims did not disappear at all, but have gone abroad, or eloped.

So Sri Lanka's war may be drawing slowly to a close but it seems bound at least to leave in its wake a legacy of fear and deep distrust.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 22 November, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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