Sri Lanka says offensive will be defeat for Tigers

Sri Lanka is hoping for a major victory against Tamil separatists, officials say, in a high-risk military strategy.

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COLOMBO // Sri Lanka is on the verge of a major victory against Tamil separatists, officials say, in a high-risk military strategy to dismantle a de facto rebel state. Mahinda Rajapakse, the president, announced that security forces will pursue a major offensive in the north of the island and capture Kilinochchi, the political capital of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"The government would continue with the anti-terror drive until the north too is liberated, just as the east," the Daily News quoted the president as saying on Tuesday night. Mr Rajapakse said he wanted to replicate the success of driving the LTTE out of the multi-ethnic Eastern Province in July last year by taking the bigger northern region, where the Tigers run their own affairs. He did not suggest a date, but the prime minister said such success could be imminent.

"Our boys might even take Kilinochchi by August 23," Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, the prime minister, said on Monday."We are very close. Kilinochchi is not very far from our sight," he said. The Tigers seized Kilinochchi, 330km north of Colombo in Nov 1999 following a counter attack that saw security forces lose vast tracts of land they had captured during 19 months of fighting. "Unlike in the past, the army is now moving in smaller groups," said retired Brig Gen Vipul Boteju. "That is why they are more successful this time round."

However, defence analysts who decline to be named said the current offensive was fraught with risks, and the government could pay dearly. "The government has given the impression that Kilinochchi will fall, and the Tigers will be defeated soon," an Asian diplomat said. "It is important to manage the expectations or the strategy could backfire." The victory fever comes with two provincial council elections to be held on Saturday. .

There has been no direct comment from the LTTE about the latest military claims, but the rebels on Tuesday tacitly admitted they were losing ground. In their first public acknowledgement that government forces were making inroads, the Tigers said civilians had been forced to leave their homes because of the army's advance. The LTTE, which has been fighting for a separate ethnic state since 1972, accused the military of shelling civilian settlements. * Agence France-Presse