October 21, 2008 / 4:10 PM / 10 years ago

Sri Lanka pushes war ahead despite Indian pressure

By C. Bryson Hull

COLOMBO, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Sri Lankan troops advanced deeper into areas held by the rebel Tamil Tigers after smashing through a 10-km (6-mile) trench line that has been the site of heavy combat for two months, the military said on Tuesday.

And with diplomatic pressure mounting from New Delhi since last week, officials said Sri Lanka’s government was planning trips to India and Pakistan to shore up support for a war it is increasingly certain it can win.

On Tuesday, the Defence Ministry said soldiers fought across massive earthen dams and trenches built by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at Akarrayankulam and Vannirakulam, amid heavy monsoon downpours.

"Intense fighting was reported between troops and the LTTE over the long earth bund (dam) at Vannerikulam and Akkarayankulam, as troops made their first moves after consolidating their newly gained positions," the Defence Ministry said in a statement.

The military gave no casualty figures for the fighting.

The army on Monday said it had captured those areas after weeks of battles in the north of the Indian Ocean island nation, where it is trying to end a 25-year-old civil war.

The LTTE has been fighting for a separate homeland in the north and east for Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil people.

Both areas are a little more than 10 km southwest of the rebels’ capital of Kilinochchi along a curving front that extends west to the port of Nachikkudah, also the site of heavy fighting for weeks as the army moves up the coast and pushes east.

LONG SLOG

Soldiers are advancing toward Kilinochchi on several fronts, and the military says some of them are within 2 km of a target as strategic as it is symbolic.

"They have dug a lot of trenches to slow down our advance," retired General Hamilton Wanasinghe, a former Sri Lankan army commander and defence secretary, told Reuters. "It must be tough going otherwise we would have cleared there by now."

Defence analyst Iqbal Athas said Vannirakulam was "just one more village on the way" to Kilinochchi amid resistance and now heavy rain that has turned roads to muddy quagmires.

"It is indeed a long slog, and what it tells us is that contrary to what was expected, there has been heavy resistance and there will be more," Athas said.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, dominated by the ethnic Sinhalese majority, is increasingly confident of winning a war that has energized his political base.

Local media on Tuesday reported that his brothers, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and special presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa, would head to Pakistan and India respectively to strengthen defence ties amid heightened tensions with New Delhi.

Last week, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged Sri Lanka to find a political end the war and protect 230,000 displaced Tamil civilians, after protests led by Tamil legislators in his ruling coalition.

"The defence secretary may visit India and Pakistan for the purpose of tightening cordial relations on defence affairs," Defence spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella said.

Pakistan provides weapons to Sri Lanka, which diplomats say rankles India but gives Colombo some leverage against a regional giant that has always been a major player in the war.

Singh and Rajapaksa spoke over the weekend on the phone, and the Rajapaksa’s office in a statement released on Tuesday said the issue of stopping the war never came up in the discussion.

He also reiterated the fact that the government is providing aid to refugees from the fighting, the statement said.

Most analysts expect India to do little except press for political devolution deal for Tamils, since it already provides Sri Lanka non-lethal military equipment and intelligence about the LTTE, which it has designated a terrorist group. (Editing by Alex Richardson)



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