|Last Tiger Air Attack: an act of desperation|
|Monday, 23 February 2009|
Tamil Tigers struggle to keep up the fight after 25 years
By Joe Leahy
The ambulance driver grabbed a late-night cup of tea at a small stall across from the gate of Trincomalee General Hospital.
At any moment, he was expecting to be called to the nearby navy dockyard in this eastern Sri Lankan city, where another boatload of about 500 wounded civilians was shortly to arrive from the island's bloody northern battlefields.
"They've been badly smashed up," he said of patients who had previously come in from the Wanni region, where rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are fighting the Sri Lankan army. "The patients told me it was difficult to escape the LTTE. They said they were shot and chopped when they were trying to get away. Many are missing their limbs."
The growing humanitarian crisis in the Wanni region is the climax of two years of fighting in which the Tigers have been pushed back into a tiny pocket of jungle after occupying territories that once stretched across Sri Lanka's north and east. Both sides trade accusations that the other is killing civilians.
Banned as a terrorist group in the US and Europe, the Tigers have been reduced from a force once estimated at about 12,000 to as few as 600, according to the military. They are defending an 87sq km region containing, by military estimates, 65,000 civilians but according to humanitarian agencies up to 250,000.
The Tigers' plight has prompted speculation that their 25-year war for a Tamil homeland in the north and east free of domination by the island's ethnic Sinhalese majority is nearing an end.
Lakshman Hulugalle, Sri Lanka defence media centre director, says were it not for the presence of civilians, whom the government says the Tigers are using as a "human shield", it would be a matter of days before the rebels were overrun.
But the Tigers on Friday night demonstrated once again why they cannot be written off, with a surprise kamikaze raid by their makeshift "airforce" on Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, far south of the battlefields.
The three or four single-engine Czech-made Zlin-143 aircraft that comprise the Tigers' air wing have flown an estimated nine sorties since their debut in 2007 with no confirmed losses.
But this time the military was ready for them. Spotted soon after they took off from a road in the Wanni region, they were shot down over Colombo. One crashed into a tax office and the other near the international airport.
Yesterday, tax officials and workers were still picking through the debris of the Inland Revenue building as papers fluttered from the upper floors near a blackened hole where the aircraft hit the structure. The attack, which killed two and injured 53, narrowly missed a neighbouring five-star hotel.
But while both sides claimed victory, analysts said the Tigers would never have squandered their treasured air wing unless they had no option. With the military closing in, it was a case of "use them or lose them". "There is a note of desperation and also a note of defiance here," said B. Raman, director at the Institute for Topical Studies, in Chennai, south India.
This much was clear from a hand-written letter purportedly left by one of the pilots, "Col Rooban", and published on Tamilnet, a pro-rebel website, which urged Tamil civilians in Wanni to take up arms and compared their struggle to Hitler and the Jews.
"I urge you to strengthen our leader's hands and join in this inevitable last battle against our enemy," it said.
For the Tigers, defeat in the conventional conflict now increasingly seems likely. When it comes, if Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE's elusive leader, survives, the Tigers may yet remain dangerous given their record of suicide attacks. The kamikaze raid shows they are even capable of attempting their own September 11 2001, says former Indian army Colonel R. Hariharan, an expert on the LTTE.
But Col Hariharan said it would be difficult for them to maintain their monopoly over the Tamil freedom struggle. Like the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, which has been supplanted by Hamas in the fight against Israel, the Tigers were likely to be gradually replaced by other groups. "Usually, these groups can sustain these movements for one generation only."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009
|Last Updated ( Friday, 09 October 2009 )|
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