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Last Updated: Friday, 25 May 2007, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
Who is winning Sri Lanka's war?

Roland Buerk
BBC News, Colombo

A joke used to do the rounds in Colombo, during a previous phase of Sri Lanka's interminable civil war - that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) must surely have already been wiped out entirely, given the numbers of rebels the military said it was killing.

Graveyard for Tamil Tiger rebels
A graveyard for Tamil Tiger fighters

The casualty figures either side give out still diverge widely today.

Sri Lanka's undeclared conflict is being fought not just at sea, on land and from the air, there's a parallel propaganda war too.

Take the incident at Delft Island, off the government-held Jaffna peninsula, in the early hours of Thursday morning.

A flotilla of Sea Tiger boats launched an attack on a navy base.

According to the military they were repulsed, four rebel craft were destroyed, two more damaged. Eighteen Tigers were killed and four navy sailors lost their lives.

The rebels' account of the same confrontation was completely different.

They said they overran the base in 20 minutes of fierce fighting and held it for several hours. They said the Sea Tigers counted the bodies of 35 dead Sri Lankan sailors and they lost four of their own.

"The problem for us is we really don't know what is going on there because these are areas that are inaccessible to civilians and the media," says Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, a think-tank set up to support a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

"Both sides are trying to show their constituencies, their people, that the war is going well. On the government side they are trying to convince people the military strategy is on course and that they should support the government.

"For the LTTE it is to show the sacrifices of the Tamil people are worth it because they are inflicting so much damage on the other side."

'Upper hand'

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, set up to observe the ceasefire, has been repeatedly blocked by both sides from inspecting the aftermath of attacks.

Certainly among many in the majority Sinhalese population in the south there is a perception that the government has had the upper hand in recent times against the Tigers, who want a homeland for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.

The biggest question is whether the Sri Lankan economy can sustain the war effort for three years
Iqbal Athas
Jane's Defence Weekly

During 2006 the rebels were driven from many areas they controlled in the east into landlocked jungle pockets.

Since mid-January much of the fighting has shifted to the north - around the forward defence lines that mark the southern perimeter of a swathe of territory the Tigers still hold.

Sri Lankan forces have been operating in small units trying to eliminate rebel positions. There have also been many air strikes on targets in Tiger areas and exchanges of artillery fire.

'Not losing'

Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe, the military spokesman of the Ministry of Defence, has said that nearly 550 rebels have been killed there in the last four months, compared to around 50 forces personnel.

Sri Lankan troops
The army is now concentrating efforts in the north of the island

The Tigers say their losses are nearer 60.

"They are lying," said Brig Samarasinghe. "They don't want to tell what is really happening, that they are losing ground, that they are losing the battle."

Senior figures in the government have even spoken of defeating the rebels militarily within two to three years.

But the Tigers insist that they are not losing.

"If you take the east, it looks as if we are retreating but the commanders are still there, all the tools are still there and we are operating as we have done for the last 25 years," said the Tigers' military spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiriyan.

"True, populated areas have been denied to us but it doesn't mean we have vacated the East. When you compare, real estate is something else, and guarding it is something the Sri Lankan army will not be able to do."

Strategic balance

And the rebels still have the capacity to surprise.

Tamil Tiger fighters
The Tigers are fighting for an independent Tamil homeland

Analysts say the strategic balance was altered when they used air power for the first time, dropping bombs twice on targets around the capital and once on a military base in the north from modified propeller driven two-seater planes.

"Although there has not been very much physical damage the political and economic damage has been high," says Iqbal Athas, Colombo correspondent of Jane's Defence Weekly.

"The government has been forced to commit to enormous defence expenditure at a time when the economy is taking a beating.

"The biggest question is whether the Sri Lankan economy can sustain the war effort for three years. They are buying it on credit, so we are fighting today and for generations to come we will have to be paying," Mr Athas says.

As for the 2002 ceasefire, neither side has abandoned it formally, but with the renewed fighting on the ground it has become an irrelevance.

And whatever the exact figures, no-one denies the numbers being killed are high. More than 4,600 people have died since December 2005, according to the Ministry of Defence.

Sri Lanka's government and the Tamil Tigers are locked back into a conflict that both sides have been able to sustain for a generation, but neither has been able to win.

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