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Sri Lanka braces for bloodier Tiger battles

world Updated: Feb 15, 2009 10:25 IST

Sri Lanka's government hoped Tamil Tiger rebels could be defeated in days, but both sides are now warning bloodier battles may lie ahead -- and civilians are likely to pay a heavy price.

Security forces have cornered the retreating Tigers in the north of the island after over three bloody decades of fighting, the rebels' de facto state has been smashed and Sri Lanka's army says there are only 700 guerrillas left.

Only last month it seemed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, and their often brutal campaign for an independent homeland were all but defeated.

But like on previous occasions when the guerrillas appeared to be on their knees, the government says the Tigers are putting up strong resistance -- including using civilians as "human shields."

They have launched ferocious counter-attacks since the beginning of this month in a bid to regain some of their lost territory and save their remaining heavy weaponry, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse said.

"There were very heavy attacks from the first to the fourth of this month. We suffered casualties," Rajapakse told the Sinhalese-language Sunday Lankadeepa weekly.

"But we repulsed the attacks successfully."

The ever-bullish Rajapakse, who is President Mahinda Rajapakse's younger brother, said the government believed that Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, 54, had lost his ability to launch major attacks.

But he said Prabhakaran would use civilians trapped in the war zone as his "final trump."

In the latest incident targeting civilians, suspected Tiger rebels lobbed a grenade and opened fire at a bus transporting refugees out of the conflict area on Saturday, killing one woman and wounding 13, the defence ministry said.

Claims by either side cannot be verified as human rights groups, diplomats and independent journalists are not allowed to report freely from the conflict area.

But as security forces encircle the rebels in a 100-square-kilometre (38-square-mile) coastal jungle area -- less than two percent of land they controlled two years ago -- concern has mounted for non-combatants.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said that "hundreds" of civilians had been killed and many more wounded since fighting intensified from January.

It has not said who was responsible for the civilian deaths.

"We are now entering the toughest phase of fighting because it is done in an area where there are lots of civilians," said retired army brigadier general Vipul Boteju.

"The civilians are the last weapon in the Tiger armoury."

A serving general who declined to be named agreed the fighting would be harder from now on because of the heavy concentration of civilians trapped in the conflict area.

"The Tigers are slowing us down by holding civilians with them," he said.

There have been calls, led by the US and Britain, asking the Tigers to allow civilians free passage out of the conflict zone, but the guerrillas have insisted that men, women and children were staying of their own accord.

However, the ICRC has warned that a "humanitarian catastrophe" was unfolding. It provoked calls from the United Nations, US and Britain for a limited truce which was swiftly rejected by Colombo.

"What we are asking the international community is to pressure the Tigers to free the civilians," Sri Lanka's foreign secretary Palitha Kohona said. "The Tigers are using a human shield."

Even beyond the end of the conventional military campaign, Colombo knows Tamil guerrillas will continue to menace the island.

"Just because we capture territory that does not mean the end of the war," Rajapakse said. "The LTTE will not give up easily. For over 30 years they have grown here and abroad. They can start again.

"My next step is to bring stability and then consolidate peace."

Most analysts believe that the Tigers are likely to go back to the classic guerrilla tactics they adopted after they formed the LTTE in 1972.

Earlier this month a female Tamil Tiger suicide bomber killed 30 people and wounded 75 at a camp for civilians who had fled the war zone.

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said the authorities may have to maintain tight security and road blocks in the country for another two years even after the Tigers are crushed.