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Wednesday, 17 May, 2000, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Jaffna: Key to the north

Jaffna is more than just a city for Sri Lanka's Tamils: it is a symbol of statehood.

Tamil leaders ruled the northern peninsula from Jaffna town periodically from about the 11th century onwards - before the British took over in 1815.

Although the Tamils subsequently lost control of the city, it has remained their cultural and political capital.

In a country where the Sinhalese make up 74% of the population, the Tamils - who are mainly Hindu - consider Jaffna as their historic heartland.

Jaffna is home to a number of ancient Hindu temples, although some of its cultural treasures have been destroyed.

The Sinhalese police burned down an important library in 1981, containing a collection of rare Tamil classics and manuscripts.

Since then, animosity between the Tamils and Sinhalese has grown increasingly bitter.

Control of the city

When the Sri Lankan army recaptured the city in 1996, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) vowed to take it back.

Reins of power
1815: Britain takes control
1948: Ceylon becomes independent
1983: Violence breaks out between Sinhalese and Tamils
1987: Peace accord overseen by Indian peacekeepers
1990: Indian troops depart; LTTE take effective control
1996: Government retakes Jaffna
Both the Sinhalese and the Tamil Tigers know that if you don't have Jaffna, you haven't captured the north.

Just a decade ago, Jaffna was a cosmopolitan city, where the Tamils lived alongside Muslims and the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese.

But in 1990 the LTTE became the de facto administration, following India's decision to withdraw its peacekeeping forces.

Upon taking control, the LTTE asked the Sinhalese and Muslims to leave.

The Sinhalese accused the Tigers of "ethnically cleansing" the city.

Army rule

In 1996, the Sri Lankan Government recaptured Jaffna, and imposed military rule.

Many of the Tamils fled. Those that remain are subject to a constant curfew.

Few of the soldiers speak Tamil, and civilians must report all visitors to the authorities.

The city's old colonial buildings are now mostly derelict, and nearly every city wall is scarred by bullet holes.

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