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Tamil Rebel Forces in Sri Lanka Stand On Brink of Major Victory

By Dexter Filkins

A stunning string of victories by Sri Lanka’s Tamil rebels appears to have brought Asia’s longest-running war to a decisive moment.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a ruthless guerrilla army fighting for independence for a portion of the island nation, are on the brink of the biggest triumph in their 17-year struggle.

Tiger troops advanced Thursday to the outskirts of Jaffna, the Tamil minority’s cultural capital on the northern tip of the island, and hemmed in about 40,000 Sri Lankan troops holding the city.

Since overrunning a key government base two weeks ago, the Tigers have shown no signs of slowing down. Earlier this week, they claimed to have captured a seven-mile stretch of road outside Jaffna, opening a potential supply route for a final push to seize the city.

The Tigers’ battlefield successes have shocked the Sri Lankan people and prompted the country’s leaders to enact a series of measures to stifle dissent and kick-start the war effort. Thursday, Sri Lankan officials began seizing property and cars in the name of the war effort and extended domestic press censorship to the foreign media.

Yet some Sri Lankans said Thursday that the new measures only reinforced their sense that the government was losing control. They feared that the Tigers would soon capture Jaffna -- and win the war. Sri Lanka would be split apart.

“This is the worst crisis the country has ever faced,” Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of Sri Lanka’s private Center for Policy Alternatives, said in a telephone interview. “The Tigers have gained the upper hand politically and militarily. I don’t know if the government can take it back.”

The rebel group launched its struggle for a Tamil homeland in 1983. The Tamils, a predominantly Hindu people who constitute less than 20 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, have long complained of discrimination at the hands of the country’s Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

The Tigers, notorious for their suicide bombers, have been declared a terrorist group by the U.S. government.

The current crisis began last month when Tiger troops launched an offensive, dubbed Unceasing Waves III, to take back Jaffna from government forces. Sri Lankan troops had held the nation’s second-largest city since 1995.

The fresh offensive followed the Tigers’ routing of government forces in northern Sri Lanka in November, when, in one week, the guerrillas recaptured territory that had cost the government two years and thousands of lives to take. In that battle, in the region known as the Wani, Sri Lankan troops panicked and ran in retreat.

The Tigers already control most of the eastern and northern areas of the island, which sits off India’s southeastern coast. Only Jaffna and the cities of Batticaloa and Trincomalee remain in government hands.

Sri Lanka’s democratically elected leaders have taken radical steps in the last several days to turn the battle around. President Chandrika Kumaratunga placed the country on a “war footing,” diverted money from development projects and sought help from foreign countries.

Thursday, Sri Lankan troops began seizing trucks for the war effort, and government leaders said they were prepared to break up strikes and close down newspapers. The government restored long-dormant diplomatic relations with Israel in the hopes of gaining military help.