Page last updated at 00:26 GMT, Friday, 21 March 2008

Numbers game clouds Sri Lankan war

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Colombo

Last Tuesday was a typical day at war in Sri Lanka.

Man reading newspaper in Colombo
Both sides in the conflict are trying to manage the flow of information

Troops and the Tamil Tigers continued to face each other across the front lines that fringe territory held by the separatists in the north.

There were sporadic confrontations and the military said 35 Tiger fighters were killed as well as two soldiers.

But some have doubts about the casualties being reported.

"If you add up all the figures given by the government from the beginning of the separatist war until now, it would have wiped out the population of the north twice over," says Iqbal Athas, consultant editor and defence correspondent of the Colombo Sunday Times and correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly.

"Similarly if one were to adopt the figures put out by the Tamil Tiger rebels, that would have depleted the ranks of the military considerably."

Journalists barred

Since the start of 2006, when a new chapter opened in the civil war between the government and the rebels who want an independent state for the Tamil ethnic minority, the government's Media Centre for National Security says 6,867 Tiger fighters and 1,501 soldiers have been killed.

Your propaganda or your reports must be based on truth
Maj Gen Perera

Of the rebel losses, just over 2000 have taken place this year up to the 19 of March, the Media Centre reports. The centre says the armed forces' losses since the first of January are number 186.

A news agency which has counted up casualty figures posted on the Ministry of Defence website has come up with slightly different numbers.

Journalists are barred from the conflict areas, and Nordic ceasefire monitors left the island when the truce formally came to an end in January, so there can be no independent confirmation.

The Tigers themselves are not putting out many figures of their own.

Intercepted transmissions

The military recovers few bodies of dead rebel fighters, saying doing so would pointlessly risk the lives of troops.

Instead, they say they rely on reports from soldiers on the ground, and intercepted radio transmissions.

Tamil Tiger rebels
The Tigers have been waging a decades-old war against Colombo

"When an incident occurs when they got a beating, the immediate tendency is to inform how many they lost, how many they got injured and to inform their cadres and get the reinforcements back," said the military's spokesman, Brig Udaya Nanayakkara.

"If they try to use the codeword, it will take some time therefore they use the quickest possible method to inform their higher ups, so that's how we get to know."

Brig Nanayakkara said he stood by the military's figures and that the Tigers were down to around 5-6,000 fighters at the beginning of this year from an estimated 12,000.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has promised victory against the Tamil Tigers and soon.

The casualty reports help sustain an aura of confidence seen as necessary to maintain the support of the majority ethnic Sinhalese who are dominant in the south.

"Even in World War Two, [British PM Winston] Churchill at the most critical time at the battle of Dunkirk said 'I will give you blood, sweat and tears and ultimate victory'," said retired Maj Gen Janaka Perera, a former chief of staff.

"I think if you carry the people and the people are convinced of what you are doing and ultimate victory, people will be prepared to sacrifice."

'Based on truth'

Inflation is high - 21.6% in February - the cost of food, cooking gas and fuel is a major concern, but there have been few protests on the streets.

Sri Lankan government troops
Sri Lanka's government says its forces are within sight of victory

In the south opinion is divided, some believe the government strategy is wrong and the war will drag on.

But others, like Mohamed Mubarak, a Muslim who was shopping at a fruit and vegetable market in Colombo, are willing to tighten their belts for victory against the rebels.

"If they are defeated, we can have a good life and the cost of living will automatically go down I hope," he said.

"We have to suffer now but at least my children will have a happy life. Hopefully the government should win."

Maj Gen Perera says: "As a general who commanded in this army in the most critical battles, I sincerely wish to believe what is in the best interest and what is advantageous to us... I sincerely wish to believe¿ I personally feel, if I am doing something, your propaganda or your reports must be based on truth. That is something I firmly believe in."

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