Page last updated at 09:25 GMT, Friday, 24 April 2009 10:25 UK

Bitter end for Sri Lanka's rebels?

By Alastair Lawson
BBC News

Sri Lankan troops
The government has consistently rejected calls for a permanent truce

The end of Sri Lanka's 25-year civil war has been much predicted in recent months - not least by the government - but it seems the conflict may now finally be drawing to a close.

The rebels are cornered in a small stretch of territory in the north-east of the country.

The army has said there will be no more breaks in the fighting until the rebels are eliminated on the ground.

With international concern growing over the plight of civilians it will be eager to announce all-out victory as soon as possible. Some ministers have even predicted this could be as early as next week.

There are two conflicting theories - which observers agree are equally plausible - as to how the last battle will finish.

"One school of thought is that the Tamil Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, will go down fighting with his troops like General Custer in his famous last stand," says Amal Jayasinghe, Colombo bureau chief of the AFP news agency.

"Another body of opinion is that that the Tiger leader has already left the country - possibly for another Asian country - and is planning to fight another day. That may explain why the rebel infrastructure appears to be on the verge of collapse."

The president has managed to keep the public behind him by arguing that the final assault will bring about a conclusive end to the war
Priyath Liyanage,
BBC Sinhala service

Mr Jayasinghe - who has covered the Sri Lankan war since it began in the 1980s - says that of the two options, the first is the more likely.

"The character of Prabhakaran - his insistence that none of his soldiers is captured alive and his emphasis on military discipline - means that he is much more likely to stay fighting to the bitter end," he says.

"Even if he wanted to escape from the war zone in a bid to re-emerge as a guerrilla leader, it would be almost impossible for him to do so now.

"The Sri Lankan army is now in control of the north and it's unlikely he could escape at this late juncture."


Analysts agree that the plight of civilians caught up in the war zone will be a key determinant in when and how the war ends.

The rebels have suffered so many setbacks on the battlefield in recent months that their future as a fighting force has become inextricably linked with the fate of the civilians.

Estimates of civilian numbers after the latest exodus from the area vary.

The figures of aid agencies and the UN have generally been double those given by the government.

Velupillai Prabhakaran
It is not clear whether Mr Prabhakaran is still leading his troops

"The only strategy left to the Tigers in resisting the current onslaught is by warning the army and the outside world that hundreds of civilians will die if and when the army launches its final offensive," says the BBC's Sinhala service editor Priyath Liyanage.

"It is only this threat of a bloodbath that is keeping the rebels alive."

Some analysts say that rebel cadres have already left the war zone posing as civilians, with the intention of re-forming in the jungle at a later stage.

From its point of view, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa will want to capture the last vestiges of rebel territory as quickly as possible not just to place the international community.

"After more than two decades of conflict, domestic war weariness will be a big threat to him if the current battle is not speedily resolved," says Priyath Liyanage.

"The president has managed to keep the public behind him by arguing that the final assault will bring about a conclusive end to the war."


President Rajapaksa's pleas to the outside world that Sri Lanka needs to deal a decisive blow in its "war against terror" has so far placated most of the international community, which has not done much more than appeal to both sides to cease hostilities.

But in recent days those calls have grown increasingly loud. The UN Security Council, which has been accused of inaction, has called on the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms and urged the government to allow international aid agencies into areas of need.

With large protests by the Tamil diaspora taking place in the UK, France, Norway, Canada and Australia it might be that foreign governments will be even more persuaded to speak out if the fighting in the north-east is not speedily concluded.

While the battle will be over imminently the war could well drag on indefinitely
Amal Jayasinghe

"The government now finds itself facing a difficult dilemma," says Priyath Liyanage.

"On the one hand it says that it wants to re-take remaining rebel territory as quickly as possible. But on the other hand, it says that the safety of civilians is of paramount importance.

"That is why it has in recent days put so much emphasis on its figures, which show that civilians are leaving the conflict area."

On one point all analysts agree: the Sri Lankan war is now entering a decisive stage and one of the largest and best-equipped rebel forces in the world is on the verge of losing its last remaining pockets of land.

But the rebels have proved on innumerable occasions that they have the capacity to strike at targets - often civilian ones - all over Sri Lanka.

"Resentment at the way the government has prosecuted the war and the reasons why it began it in the first place - the grievances of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority - have not been addressed," says Amal Jayasinghe.

"So while the battle will be over imminently the war could well drag on indefinitely."

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