Page last updated at 19:21 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

S Lanka rebels attack despite losses

By Alastair Lawson
BBC News

Raid on Colombo
The rebels have carried out surprise attacks on many previous occasions

The attack by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels on the capital shows that while their conventional capacity has been drastically reduced, their ability to launch surprise attacks is undiminished.

The rebels are currently surrounded by troops in a small area in the north-east of the island. They have lost significant tranches of territory to the army and most analysts agree it is only a matter of time before they lose what little land they still hold.

Even as the attack in Colombo was taking place, the government was portraying it as a desperate last throw of the dice by the rebels before their extermination. And much was made of the speedy response of the air force.

Yet the fact that the rebels were able to launch such an attack in the first place is a huge embarrassment to the authorities, who over the last few weeks have claimed to have destroyed at least seven rebel airfields as the army advances in the north-east.

Propaganda value

Pro-government pundits had said that the loss of so much territory made it impossible for the rebels to use their more sophisticated weapons and that the army would now be concentrating on a "mopping up" operation.

Submarine captured by Sri Lankan trops
The rebels are renowned for their technical skills

The latest attack is also a reflection of the rebels' innovative technical skills. Evidence of that was seen last month, when the army unveiled a 35-foot (10.5m) armour-plated submarine it said it had seized from a Tamil Tiger jungle hideout.

They also found three partially completed mini-submarines and a 152mm artillery gun.

While all the signs so far suggest that Friday's raid has not significantly caused any damage to the military, its value in propaganda terms is huge.

The Tamil diaspora has in recent weeks been increasingly vocal in its condemnation of the war - almost at the same time as Friday's raid, about 14,000 people in Geneva rallied demanding independence for Tamil areas of Sri Lanka.

Some of the Tamils in Europe, Canada, and Australia have provided the rebels with significant financial support over the last three decades and many will see this raid as a morale-boosting development in the face of recent setbacks.

Sri Lankan soldier
The army now has the advantage in manpower and weaponry

"It is very significant that the rebels have carried out such an audacious attack when the government say that they are all but finished," says the BBC's Sinhala Editor, Priyath Liyanage.

"It confirms what many of us already knew - the rebels may be experiencing reverses on the battle field but they are not simply just going to disappear."

For much of their existence over the last 30 years or so, the rebels have specialised in surprise attacks - many of them suicide bombings.

Prime ministers and presidents have been killed, high-security army headquarters infiltrated, passenger planes at the international airport destroyed and the country's central bank blown up.

Many analysts now predict that similar tactics will now be deployed by the rebels in future as they abandon their conventional war and revert to the methods that characterised the early years of their existence.

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