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How Sri Lanka's military won

Sri Lankan soldiers in Kilinochchi
The army stretched the rebels thin by opening up many fronts

By Anbarasan Ethirajan
BBC News

Few believed him when Sri Lanka's powerful defence secretary said he required three years to defeat the once invincible Tamil Tiger rebels.

When Gotabaya Rajapaksa made the assertion, the Tamil Tigers, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), controlled nearly one third of the country, had a well-organised, ruthless fighting unit, sufficient stocks of heavy weapons, a small navy and a rudimentary air force.

They had no problems of fresh supplies as they had enough resources pouring in from their supporters abroad and through their commercial ventures.

Only a handful of military analysts believed that the rebels could be wiped out completely.

Today, Sri Lanka is among the few nations that can say it has successfully quelled a nearly three-decade insurgency by military means.

All territory once held by the rebels has been captured, huge caches of weapons have been recovered and destroyed, and the entire Tamil Tiger leadership is thought to have been wiped out.

So what led to the military success of a force that had been on the receiving end for many years?

'No ambiguity'

"So many factors have contributed to the success of the Sri Lankan forces. There was a clear aim and mandate from the political level to the official level and to the military level to destroy the LTTE at any cost. There was no ambiguity in that," Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the BBC.

The rebels thought the international community, especially neighbouring India, would intervene looking at the civilian suffering
DBS Jeyaraj

When the current president, his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, came to power in 2005, he made it clear that he would go all out against the rebels if they were not sincere in peace talks.

Once the peace process failed, he gave the go-ahead for the war to his brother and the hard-line army commander, Gen Sarath Fonseka.

A massive recruitment drive for the armed forces was launched (it increased from about 80,000 to more than 160,000 personnel). New weapons - including fighter jets, artillery guns and multi-barrel rocket launchers - were bought from countries like China, Pakistan and Russia, and new military strategies and tactics were evolved.

"That was the time when the international community was totally disappointed with the rebels because of their insincerity in peace talks. So countries like India and the US gave their tacit support for the all-out offensive against the LTTE," says Sri Lankan analyst DBS Jeyaraj.

Sri Lankan helicopter
Air force superiority was a key factor for the government

Hostilities between the two sides broke out first in Eastern Province in August 2006. After months of intense battles, the government declared it had completely dislodged the rebels from the east.

One of the main reasons for the rebels' eastern debacle was the split in 2004 - when the Tigers' influential eastern commander, Col Karuna, broke away because of differences with the leadership.

"The LTTE could never recover from that. Thousands of fighters went away with Karuna and the LTTE could not recruit fresh cadres from the east, dealing a severe blow to their manpower. They struggled hard to replace fallen cadres in the subsequent northern battle," says Col R Hariharan, former chief of military intelligence of the Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990.

It was only a matter of time before the Sri Lankan military launched the second phase of its offensive to recapture the rebel strongholds in the north.

In the meantime, the Sri Lankan navy had also hunted and destroyed many Tamil Tiger supply ships in deep seas, dealing a crucial blow to the rebels.

Battlefield plans

The army also changed its tactics and became better able to cope with the kind of warfare waged by the guerrillas.

Small teams of commandoes were sent behind enemy lines to carry out attacks against rebel leaders and key defence lines.

Brigadier Shavendra Silva
Brigadier Shavendra Silva said the Tigers were taken by surprise

The military also started to stretch them thin by opening up a number of fronts in the north.

The Tamil Tigers had no answer to the bombing missions by air force jets.

"The rebels never knew about the battlefield plans. We surprised them in many areas. For example, they didn't expect me to capture the strategically important town of Paranthan, near Kilinochchi, by outflanking them," Brig Shavendra Silva, commander of the Sri Lankan army's 58th division, told the BBC in a recent interview from the front line.

The capture of Paranthan forced the rebels to withdraw from the strategically important Elephant Pass, a small land bridge that connects northern Jaffna peninsula with the rest of the country.

From Paranthan, Sri Lankan security forces battled their way into the Tamil Tiger de-facto capital of Kilinochchi.

The 58th division, which is credited with a series of military successes against the rebels, battled hard to forge ahead from Mannar up to Matalan beach on the eastern coast in Mullaitivu district.

"It was not an easy walk. But we went ahead with a huge momentum and kept our pace and there were clear-cut instructions and leadership from our superiors," Brig Silva said.

But many argue that the military's success has come at an enormous humanitarian cost.

The UN believes that nearly 7,000 civilians may have been killed and 13,000 injured in the conflict since January.

Aid agencies say around 275,000 people have been displaced.

A number of villages and towns have either been damaged or destroyed.

Both the military and the rebels are being accused of gross violations of international humanitarian law. The two sides deny the charges.

"The Sri Lankan military juggernaut cruised ahead despite mounting civilian casualties. The rebels thought the international community, especially neighbouring India, would intervene looking at the civilian suffering and bring about a ceasefire in the final stages. When that did not happen, they ran out of options," says Mr Jeyaraj.



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