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Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Monday, 4 May 2009 12:51 UK
'Final stages' in Sri Lanka conflict

By Andrew Hosken
Today programme, Colombo

Photo provided by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), showing displaced Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils at a transit camp in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka
Tens of thousands of civilians have been affected by the conflict

For years, the town of Kilinochchi was the headquarters of the Tamil Tiger rebels, which the Sri Lankan government describes as a brutal and ruthless terrorist organisation.

Now it is the HQ for the Sri Lankan Army which says it is on the verge of finally destroying an organisation it has fought for more than 30 years.

When Kilinochchi was finally captured by the army earlier this year, there were widespread celebrations, particularly in the country's southern capital, Colombo.

Although over the last two decades Kilinochchi has changed hands several times, its fall on 2 January signalled the end of the Tigers - who now control just a small coastal strip, 40km from Kilinochchi.

Ghost town

Both the Sri Lankan government and its army clearly want nothing to come between them and the total victory they expect.

They seem particularly anxious about the way the conflict, and the appalling humanitarian crisis in its wake, are reported by the foreign media.

The military flew us by troop carrier and then helicopter the 250km north to Kilinochchi from Colombo.

We arrived at the HQ for the two main infantry divisions that have now encircled the Tigers, the 57th and the 58th.

Major General Jagath Dias, who commands the 57th, captured Kilinochchi for the government. "It was the proudest moment of my career," he said.

But when the general finally raised the Sri Lankan flag in Kilinochchi, it fluttered over a ruined ghost town.

A giant water pipe which the army claim was destroyed by the Tamil Tigers
The army claims that the Tigers have also been targeting basic infrastructure

Scarcely a building or piece of infrastructure remained intact. Even the vast jumbo jet sized concrete pipe that carried water to many people in the region is wrecked.

"This was deliberately destroyed by the terrorists," the general said, shaking his head in vigorous disapproval. "Do you think we did it?"

The general's defensive question perhaps reflects a view widespread in the army and in government circles - that the western media has given succour over the years to the Tamil Tigers or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

On the road between Kilinochchi and Paranthan, we travelled through several abandoned towns and villages that had been virtually obliterated

The army's press conference also made clear its view that what it sees as a gullible foreign media has been a part of the Tigers' weaponry since its violent campaign for a separate Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka first took shape in the mid 1970's.

Heavy losses

But more lethal weaponry is also being used by the Tamils in their last desperate days.

Recently the Sri Lankan navy destroyed three so-called "Sea Tigers" vessels, including two suicide boats. Twenty-three Tigers died.

Suicide attacks on troops are common occurrences. Six suicide attacks happened during one day during the same week the Sea Tigers sustained their heavy losses.

This is why proportionately the army has killed twice as many LTTE cadres as it has wounded.

Since starting its final offensive in February 2007, the Tigers have lost approximately 6,146 dead to 3,043 wounded, according to army estimates.

Display of munitions captured from the Tamil Tigers
The army has been displaying what it says is captured rebel hardware

Eleven LTTE cadres have died for every soldier, the army's commanders told us.

The army was keen to show the media some of the arms and other items captured from the Tigers in recent months - including a tank, heavy artillery, assault rifles and home made land mines.

We were taken to the hamlet of Paranthan, the place closest to the "no fire zone", the small coastal area currently held by the last of the Tigers.

Although we were only 2 to 3km from the area, mainly made up of paddy fields and smallholdings, we could hear no signs of fighting.

Only later could we discern what sounded like mortar fire, but it was not clear whose mortars they were.

In what by any standards has been a vicious conflict, there have been claims by the LTTE of army breeches of the government's no fire zone pledge.

After our stay with the army ended, we heard of an alleged artillery attack on a makeshift hospital in the no fire zone, killing more than 60 people.

A pro-Tamil website accused the military of shelling the hospital. But Brigadier Udaya Nanakkara, a military spokesman, denied there had been any such attack.

Food shortages

Displaced Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils in the congested No Fire Zone, which is controlled by the Tamil Tiger rebels
Tens of thousands of civilians are still believed trapped in the north-east

What was clear from our visit was the scale of the destruction.

On the road between Kilinochchi and Paranthan, we travelled through several abandoned towns and villages that had been virtually obliterated.

Everywhere there were smashed buildings and vehicles. Even road-side Hindu shrines were destroyed.

We saw no civilians. Crops go untilled and livestock wander the fields untended.

What is far from clear is the scale of the humanitarian crisis.

Neither the true figure of the total number of internally displaced people (IDPs) is known nor the number of people allegedly held as LTTE hostages within the no fire zone itself.

The United Nations says at least 172,000 people have crossed out of the conflict zone in recent weeks.

There has been limited media access to the camps and IDP reception centres.

The fate of those people in the no fire zone remains the biggest concern.

According to Mr V Anandasangaree, President of the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front, the figure could be at least 100,000.

Writing to the Sri Lankan President, Rahinda Rajapaska, Mr Anandasangaree said; "I have very reliable information that the number still stranded in the Vanni [region] is over 150,000."

He called on the government to stop any aerial bombing or shelling and added; "There is also an acute shortage of food and the people are virtually on the verge of starvation."

I put Mr Anandasangaree's figures both to Major General Dias and his senior colleague Brig Shavendra Silva, commander of the 58th division.

They said it was difficult to calculate the number at this stage but thought the figure would be considerably lower that Mr Anandasangaree's estimate.

Whichever figure is correct, the army knows this is a fight not just to obliterate the Tamil Tigers but to save the lives of perhaps many thousands of innocent men, women and children caught up in the storm of war.

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