KANAGAPURAM, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Tugging at a cyanide capsule hanging around his neck, Tamil Tiger fighter and doctor Vaman watches yet another slain comrade buried to the wails of relatives and the chorus of a rebel anthem.
He says the deaths only make him stronger.
Standing in characteristic Tiger-striped fatigues which conceal a prosthetic leg -- his own was blown off by a landmine during fighting in the early 1990s -- Vaman says he is ready to die to further the rebel cause for an independent state.
His friend and colleague Lieutenant Colonel Tamil Vanan was one of three Tiger fighters killed a day earlier by a roadside bomb ambush inside rebel territory. The insurgents blame army troops using their own guerrilla tactics against them.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam say the three were part of a medical team conducting an anti-rabies clinic.
“These attacks by the Sri Lankan forces will not stop our duties,” said Vaman, who is director of the rebels’ Tamil Eelam Health Service. Tamil Eelam is the name the Tigers give to the homeland they seek to carve out in Sri Lanka’s north and east.
Suspected Tigers have launched a spree of ambushes and bombings in recent months which have killed hundreds of people, most of them troops, after a 2002 ceasefire collapsed. Political analysts say Sri Lanka can expect more dead.
Nearly 70,000 people have been killed since the war erupted in 1983, around 4,500 of those since last year alone, and the blood is still flowing.
“We are fighting for our country’s young. We have been under oppression for the last five decades, so I will fight until my last breath,” said 39-year-old Vaman, who says he joined the Tigers at 18 after watching troops beat minority ethnic Tamils in his native northern Jaffna peninsula.
The rebels wear cyanide capsules so they can bite into them and commit suicide to avoid capture.
SEA OF GRAVES
Wailing relatives collapse in front of open caskets at this ‘martyrs’ graveyard’ near the rebels’ northern stronghold of Kilinochchi.
“We put sand on our friend’s grave, the blood they lost will get Tamil Eelam,” goes the song played over loudspeakers.
Tiger fighters clutching Chinese-made assault rifles stand to attention. Others bow their heads in silence, behind them a sea of simple tombstones laid in neat rows where thousands of fellow ‘martyrs’ are buried.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has captured a vast chunk of territory the rebels controlled in the east, and have vowed to push on and capture the rebel-held north too.
But the Tigers are much stronger in the north and there is no clear winner on the horizon yet.
The international community is increasingly agitated with both sides for a rash of human rights abuses and killings -- and for ignoring calls to halt fighting that has forced hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes.
Selvy Navaruban of the Tigers’ humanitarian affairs wing joined the rebels in 1997 after watching hundreds of fellow Tamils displaced and killed by the conflict.
“I thought better to fight and die for our homeland than sit at home and die for nothing,” she said, her hair in the traditional plaits worn by many female Tigers. “When one of our colleagues dies, they give us the strength to fight on.”
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