A pledge by Sri Lanka’s Tamil rebel leader to fight on despite a military onslaught raised fears Friday of a return to a hit-and-run guerrilla war as his mini-state faced potential collapse.
Separatist chief Velupillai Prabhakaran vowed Thursday the rebels would “continue with our struggle until the alien Sinhala occupation of our land is evicted,” referring to Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese population, and appealed to Tamils abroad for support to shore up his military machine.
Government forces have surrounded Prabhakaran in his political capital of Kilinochchi in the biggest-ever military campaign in the history of Sri Lanka‘s armed separatist struggle, which dates back to 1972.
Prabhakaran’s speech delivered over Voice of Tigers radio contained veiled threats against civilians and suggestions the rebels would revert to hit-and-run attacks as their territory shrank, observers said.
“Prabhakaran acknowledges there’s fighting all around him and that he’s under siege,” said retired army brigadier general Vipul Boteju. “When he says he will fight on, it means he will return to his classic guerrilla tactics.”
State radio warned Friday that Tiger rebels could resort to “desperate attacks” and called for public vigilance as heavy fighting raged in the island’s northern regions where Tamils predominate.
Security across the country had been stepped up, officials said, after a spate of bombings in Colombo and elsewhere targeting key political and military figures as well as government installations.
Recent bombings against public transport were seen as retaliation for similar strikes by security forces inside rebel-held territory where the Tigers have maintained a mini-state since 1990, including their own police, courts and banks in Kilinochchi.
“No sane voice is being raised either to abandon war or to seek peaceful resolution to the conflict,” Prabhakaran said in his broadcast, adding the Sinhalese community across the board supported the war.
Rebel-turned-politician Dharmalingam Sithadthan said Prabhakaran had accused all members of the majority Sinhalese community of supporting the government’s war effort.
“This suggests he’s preparing the ground to justify indiscriminate attacks against civilians,” Sithadthan said. “When the LTTE is militarily weakened, they will resort to high-profile guerrilla attacks.”
He said he saw the guerrillas going back to the hit-and-run tactics they had adopted in the early 1980s.
The Tigers were known for massacres of Sinhalese civilians until the turn of the century when they changed tactics to target mainly security forces and the economy as they developed a conventional military capability.
Unlike previous Sri Lankan leaders, the hawkish President Mahinda Rajapakse has said he will accept nothing short of surrender from the Tigers.
Diplomats noted his war effort has generated a wave of support and he has won every local election since stepping up pressure on the Tigers.
“The Sri Lankan military can crush the Tigers in Kilinochchi, but we don’t think it will be the end of the conflict,” one Asian diplomat said. “From his speech, it is clear he will not give up, but he won’t be able to fight a conventional war.”
The government pulled out of a moribund Norwegian-arranged truce and stepped up a campaign to dismantle the LTTE‘s mini state in the island’s north earlier this year.
The government, which claims the fall of Kilinochchi is “imminent,” said Prabhakaran was not interested in ending the fighting.
“By remaining silent about laying down arms, he has proved that he is not ready for talks,” defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said.
Rambukwella said there would be no truce deal with the Tigers and reiterated that the military will soon crush the guerrillas.