COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka hit the Tamil Tigers on Wednesday with a terrorist designation it lifted as part of ill-fated 2002 truce, as soldiers pressured the separatists’ last stronghold on the Jaffna Peninsula.
Though largely symbolic since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are already on U.S., E.U. and Indian terrorist lists and the government routinely calls them that, the cabinet vote is just one more sign Sri Lanka has no plans to negotiate.
“The cabinet has decided to ban the LTTE as they are not allowing civilians to leave the war zone,” defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella, also a minister, told Reuters.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa had given the LTTE until the New Year to free civilians which rights group say the rebels are keeping as human shields and using as fighters or battlefield laborers. The LTTE denies that.
The original ban was imposed on the Tigers in January 1998, and lifted as part of a Norway-brokered truce four years later. Rajapaksa scrapped the poorly observed truce a year ago, accusing the LTTE of using it to re-arm and vowing to wipe them out.
In that year, the military has recaptured most of northern Sri Lanka and last week took the LTTE’s self-proclaimed capital of Kilinochchi, in a blow to their separatist plans.
Soldiers on Wednesday kept up pressure on the bottleneck linking the main island to the Jaffna Peninsula from two fronts, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. Resistance was lower than on the first day of the assault a day earlier.
“The number of fighters and the volume of fire is lower, in terms of artillery,” he said. The army has sandwiched the LTTE on the thin strip of land, with troops to the north and south.
That 12-km (7-mile) by 6-km wide area, covered with bunkers, landmines and defenses, is the only part of the traditionally Tamil land of Jaffna the rebels have controlled since the military seized the rest of the peninsula in 1995.
Two soldiers and five rebels were killed in fighting there and elsewhere in the war zone on Tuesday, Nanayakkara said.
The rebels had no immediate comment. Confirmation is nearly impossible since both sides bar most media from the area.
LTTE political head B. Nadesan, in an interview published on Tuesday on the pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com, said the Tigers were confident of reversing their battlefield fortunes.
“The simple truth is that we have taken forward our struggle for more than 30 years, solely relying on the support of our people. We are certain that the continued support will enable us to overcome current and future challenges,” TamilNet quoted him as saying.
The Tigers formed in the 1970s and began waging war in earnest in 1983, saying they were fighting for Sri Lankan Tamils against mistreatment by the majority Sinhalese, who dominated government since independence from Britain in 1948.
In the wedge of jungle still held by the Tigers are what aid agencies say are up to 230,000 displaced Tamils, forced to live in crude shelter if they have any at all. Nanayakkara said about 150 civilians had come to army-held areas in the last two days.
Additional reporting by the London Bureau; Editing by David Fox