Page last updated at 15:16 GMT, Monday, 30 June 2008 16:16 UK

Tamil Tigers 'defeated' says army

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Colombo

Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka. Pic: Sri Lankan army
Gen Fonseka admits an insurgency may always be present

The commander of Sri Lanka's army, Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, says the Tamil Tigers have been defeated as a conventional force.

He said troops were advancing steadily into the rebel-held north and within a year the Tigers would lose large areas and their control over the population.

But Gen Fonseka admitted a low-level insurgency could last indefinitely.

His comments came as inflation figures showed a continued rise, threatening to undermine support for the government.

Intelligence estimates

Speaking to foreign correspondents, Lt Gen Fonseka said 9,000 Tamil Tiger fighters had been killed since fighting resumed with the effective breakdown of a ceasefire in August 2006.

The rebels are fighting for a separate state for the island's ethnic Tamil minority, complaining of decades of domination by majority Sinhalese-led governments.

Even if we finish the war, capture the whole of the north, still the LTTE might have some members joining them
Lt Gen Fonseka

Gen Fonseka said 1,700 soldiers had also died, but that resistance was crumbling. "This present [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)] capability of fighting as a conventional army - we have already defeated them," he said.

"They have lost that capability, although they are fighting with us, not in the same manner like earlier. They had the defensive lines, we couldn't move even one kilometre for two or three months. That kind of resistance is not there any more."

He estimated 4,000-5,000 Tiger fighters remained.

Gen Fonseka admitted that intelligence estimates at the start of the latest chapter of the war in 2006 had been that the rebels' total force was only 7,000-8,000, fewer than he now claims his forces have killed.

The commander said the discrepancy was because of additional Tiger recruitment, some of it forced, as well as the deployment of home guards and police officers to fight.

The war has been taking place in trenches, bunkers and in the jungles of the north. Artillery duels have been fought.

Gen Fonseka said soldiers were facing mines and booby traps, with limbs lost every day.

But troops had advanced beyond the original frontlines, deep into Tiger-controlled territory, and were now within mortar range of Vidattaltivu, the rebels' main sea base on the north-west coast.

"Maybe a maximum of one year from now onwards the LTTE should lose large areas," Gen Fonseka said.

"They should not be able to maintain their present control over the population, to be able to resist the army in the way they are resisting now. They would have to lose all that capability."

'Unnecessary war'

But Sri Lankan government ministers had earlier predicted victory by December.

The timescale is important because President Mahinda Rajapaksa's support is largely based on his claim he can defeat the Tamil Tigers by force, and bring peace to Sri Lanka after a generation.

Sri Lankans are suffering economic woes - how long they can endure is critical to the government's hopes of success.

Sri Lankan troops in the Jaffna peninsula
The battle is fought in the north in trenches, bunkers and in jungles

Inflation is soaring, the latest figures show consumer prices in Colombo up 28.2% from a year earlier.

Last week workers at a government printing press demonstrated on the street demanding a pay rise of about $50 a month.

"Harmful, unnecessary war," said one man. "We have to live peacefully."

When asked if he blamed the war for the high cost of living he replied. "Yes. Actually I think it is the main problem."

The governor of the Central Bank, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, told the BBC the main reason for high inflation in Sri Lanka was the global rise in oil prices, combined with the government reducing fuel subsidies.

The Tamil Tigers have not commented directly on Gen Fonseka's claims to have defeated them as a conventional force.

But earlier they rubbished the military's reports of battlefield successes and said the casualty figures being put out by the government were false, intended to retain support for the war in the Sinhalese-dominated south.

The Tigers also retain fixed-wing aircraft that have been used to drop bombs on targets, as well as sea forces. For years they have deployed suicide bombers to launch devastating attacks.

There have been a number of explosions on public transport around Colombo recently blamed on the rebels, although they have denied responsibility.

Gen Fonseka himself narrowly escaped death when a woman suicide bomber targeted him in April 2006 inside the high security army headquarters complex.

The army commander himself believes the conflict might never be totally over.

"Even if we finish the war, capture the whole of the north, still the LTTE might have some members joining them," he said.

"There are people who believe in Tamil nationalism. The LTTE might survive another even two decades with about 1,000 cadres. But we will not be fighting in the same manner. It might continue as an insurgency forever."

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