By Simon Gardner
COLOMBO, Oct 20 (Reuters) - There is no way Sri Lanka's government will be able to crush its Tamil Tiger foes, and giving wide political autonomy to minority Tamils is the only answer, a leading European counter-terrorism expert says. With near daily land and sea clashes, ambushes, bombings and air raids amid a new chapter in a two-decade civil war that has killed around 70,000 people, the government is now taking the war to the rebels with offensives to drive them from territory they control.
But the tactic is flawed and cannot solve an ethnic conflict that has killed around 5,000 people since early 2006 alone, said Dr. Gerard Chaliand, former director of the European Center for the Study of Conflicts.
"No way, you can't crush the Tigers," Chaliand told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of a counter-terrorism conference in Colombo at which he was a keynote speaker. "Technically speaking they are the most efficient movement at present in the world."
"Before them I've seen two others which were outstanding. The Vietnamese, and the EPLF from Eritrea -- they won. (The Tigers) are the third one," he added. "You don't crush those guys with the Sri Lankan army, which by the way is not the best in the world."
Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's brother, disagrees, and says Chaliand does not know the ground realities.
"I don't agree with that at all. I'm sure we are the best when you talk about counter-terrorism, who else has had to do this?" Rajapaksa said. " He can't make a comment like that, it's not logical."
"He doesn't know the ground situation, he is looking from far away," he added, saying Chaliand did not know what arms the military are using or about the morale of either side.
Chaliand describes the Tigers as a totalitarian killing machine, and says there appears to be little prospect of negotiating a peace deal with the rebels as long as shadowy rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran remains at the helm.
Removing Prabhakaran from the equation would help, but the answer is to give significant autonomy to minority Tamils, which the government has so far failed to do, he says.
The government has promised widespread autonomy for minority Tamils and has also vowed to destroy all the Tigers' military assets and "liberate" all areas controlled by the Tigers, including in their northern stronghold.
But a cross-party drive to come up with a consensus devolution proposal has been aground for months, and even moderate Tamils were unhappy with draft proposals the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -- who are widely banned as a terrorist group -- have already rejected out of hand.
"The grievances of the Tamils are legitimate, they are part of this country, they should have a place in it as a recognised minority, whether it is in the framework of political autonomy or a federation," Chaliand said.
"If they want Tamils to join them, they have to make a fair offer," he added. "There is no military solution to this business only."
While the government has had the upper hand in recent months, capturing swathes of rebel-held territory in the east, analysts say there is no clear winner on the horizon and fear the conflict could grind on for years.
The government has called on the international community to help tackle the Tigers by curbing their fund-raising abroad.