Sri Lanka signs off on record war spending

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s parliament approved a budget on Monday pledging record spending next year on the war with the Tamil Tigers, while troops resumed attacks on the edge of the rebels’ headquarters town of Kilinochchi.

Soldiers are seen crossing a flooded road in Poonaryn, northern Sri Lanka, in this November 28, 2008 file photo. Sri Lanka's parliament approved a budget on Monday pledging record spending next year on the war with the Tamil Tigers, while troops resumed attacks on the edge of the rebels' headquarters town of Kilinochchi. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

And in a sign President Mahinda Rajapaksa will use the greatest military success by any government so far in the 25-year war to test the electoral waters, the government said it would dissolve provincial councils shortly to clear the way for polls.

The battle for Kilinochchi has picked up pace in recent days after monsoon rains slowed a multi-pronged assault that had been energised by the army’s Oct. 15 capture of the entire western coast for the first time since 1993.

“Troops in Kilinochchi are targeting the town and they are in the vicinity of the town,” military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said on Monday.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could not be reached for comment.

Independent confirmation is all but impossible because both sides limit media access to the war zone. The military has been saying it is near Kilinochchi since September.

Rajapaksa’s 2009 budget, with record defence spending and several populist measures, passed by 126 votes to 84 in parliament on Monday. Defence spending was forecast to grow by up to 20 percent to a record 200 billion rupees ($1.82 billion).

It was approved despite a no-confidence motion brought by the main opposition United National Party, which accused Rajapaksa’s government of mishandling oil price hedges that could cost Sri Lanka hundreds of millions of dollars.

Also in parliament, the government’s chief whip, Health Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva, said several provincial councils would be dissolved shortly.

Several are due for dissolution by the middle of next year, and elections for them would give a clear sign of how much support Rajapaksa and the war have in the nation of 21 million.

On Sunday, the Defence Ministry website said rebels had put up stiff resistance against soldiers positioned within “kissing distance” of the outer defences of Kilinochchi, 330 km north of the capital Colombo.

Troops captured two bunkers and the air force carried out air strikes in the Kilinochchi area at the weekend, the military said. Further east, soldiers were battling toward the other major Tiger stronghold, the eastern port of Mullaittivu.

Kilinochchi is a strategic prize for the Sri Lankan military, which is increasingly confident of winning the 25-year war, and is also of symbolic importance to the LTTE’s aspirations to create a separate state for minority ethnic Tamils.

Tourism officials said on Monday tourist arrivals fell 18.2 percent in November from a year ago as the global financial crisis and intensified fighting kept visitors away.

LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran said in his annual address last month Sri Lanka was living in a “dreamland” if it thought it would achieve victory. Analysts say the LTTE, on U.S., E.U. and Indian terrorism lists, is on the defensive.

Since 1983, the Tigers have fought to create a separate homeland for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils, many of whom have complained of discrimination by governments led by the Sinhalese ethnic majority for all 60 years since independence from Britain.