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Wednesday, 3 May, 2000, 18:59 GMT 19:59 UK
Sri Lankan army on the ropes
The loss of Elephant Pass was a major blow to the army

By Susannah Price in Colombo

The Sri Lankan army is facing one of the most serious debacles of the 17-year war against the rebel Tamil Tigers.

The Tigers overran the seemingly impregnable Elephant Pass complex at the gateway to the northern Jaffna peninsula in April, leaving them poised to take the whole peninsula.

The army is in a terrible mess

Vice-Marshal Harry Goonethileke

"The army is in a terrible mess and there is no easy way out," said the former Air Chief, Vice-Marshal Harry Goonethileke.

The armed forces seized Jaffna town in December 1995 from the Tamil Tigers and took the rest of the peninsula in the following months.

They poured in thousands of troops, fortified the bases and said they were winning the hearts and minds of the local Tamil population.

Sri Lankan troops
The army suffers from low morale and supply problems

Tamil homeland

The Tigers had always vowed to retake the peninsula, which was previously the centre of their mini-state and forms the core of their claim for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority in the north and east.

However, this seemed a remote idea until the Tigers began launching their offensive late last year.

In mid-April they launched a major assault to cut off the Elephant Pass complex which guards the main route linking the peninsula to the mainland.

There were some 15,000 troops inside the complex, being attacked by a third that number of Tigers, but they were unable to hold on and the order came to withdraw.

Lack of morale

One of the main reasons for the army's continuing setbacks appears to be a lack of morale among the troops.

Most of the recruits have little ideological interest in the war, but have joined to receive the wages of about $100 a month, which is more than a teacher earns.

There have been complaints about the training being too short and soldiers spending weeks on the front lines without a break.

Logistical problems

The logistics have also caused problems.

The water supply to Elephant Pass had been cut off when the Tigers earlier took the camp at Lyakachchi, where the wells were situated. Many of the casualties were reported to be suffering from dehydration.

Military experts also say that the army of about 120,000 men, which suffers from a high desertion rate, is insufficient to defeat the guerrillas.

"If we want to do this properly and put this country on a war footing then we have to have conscription," said Air Vice-Marshal Goonethileke.

"That way the leaders will have to send their children and we might have some action to end the war."

Tigers' strengths

Tamil demonstration
The Tamil Tigers want a separate homeland in the north and east

The Tamil Tigers are known to be highly motivated, as shown by the large number of volunteers willing to act as suicide bombers. They know Jaffna well and are thought to have several infiltrators in the peninsula.

Even the military has admitted the Tigers are well stocked with heavy artillery and could have multi-barrelled rocket launchers.

The Tigers' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has said that 2000 would be the year of war. Some analysts believe he has never been serious about peace talks which the Norwegian Government is supposed to be brokering.

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03 May 00 | South Asia
India rules out Sri Lanka help
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