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Sri Lanka Asks Its Army To Tame Tamil Tigers

CAMPAIGN posters from last year's presidential elections here still adorn train stations and other buildings, depicting then-candidate Chandrika Kumaratunga dwarfed by a large dove hovering in the background.

Mrs. Kumaratunga won a landslide victory last November largely because of her promise to find a peaceful solution to Sri Lanka's 12-year-old civil war. But last week her tactics in achieving that goal shifted dramatically.

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The Army launched "Operation Leap Forward" July 9. It was the largest offensive the military has conducted against the Tamil Tigers in eight years. The Tigers are a guerrilla group fighting for an independent homeland for the country's Tamil minority in the north. Officials say the offensive was to "liberate ... Jaffna" and force the rebels to negotiate.

"If we cannot achieve peace through peaceful means, we have to resort to other alternatives," Kumaratunga said shortly before the offensive began.

In her efforts to negotiate with the Tigers, Kumaratunga has encountered the same frustration that has thwarted peace gestures made by her predecessors. She negotiated a cease-fire agreement with the rebels in January, but the truce collapsed abruptly in April when the Tigers sank two Navy ships and later used surface-to-air missiles to shoot down two troop transport planes.

Critics say the Tigers used the cease-fire merely as an opportunity to regroup, a tactic they have employed before. Kumaratunga has been under growing pressure - especially from her own military - to take a tougher stance against the rebels.

In fact, many Sri Lankans - even Tamils - have grown wary of the Tigers. "They want war, nothing else," says Bopage Ravindra, a school teacher from the southern town of Ahagama.

For their part, the Tigers say the government has negotiated in bad faith. "The government was preparing for a war because they didn't have any solution," says Lawrence Thilakar, the rebels' European representative in Paris.

Well-armed and highly motivated, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the group is formally known, has gained control of one-third of Sri Lanka. The rebels are renowned for their commitment to their cause and have assassinated several Sri Lankan politicians

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Lately, Sri Lanka has been trying to enlist the help of other nations in its efforts to defeat the group. The country's foreign minister recently visited several European countries, trying to persuade governments there to close down the LTTE's offices abroad.

"The rest of the world should unequivocally keep pressure on the LTTE," says Ravinatha Aryasinha, a spokesman for the foreign ministry. Sri Lanka's diplomatic efforts are also aimed at stemming the covert flow of weapons to the group.

One nation that is unlikely to come to Sri Lanka's aid is India. Although it intervened in the conflict before, even sending troops to Sri Lanka in 1987, New Delhi now says it is reluctant to get involved in "an internal conflict."

Despite the just-concluded week's military offensive, Kumaratunga insists she has not abandoned her campaign promise. Later this month, she is expected to announce a "peace package" that will offer limited autonomy to the Tamils living in Jaffna. "This package will satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people," says Mr. Aryasinha. "It may not satisfy Prabhakaran's personal aspiration, but that is a different problem," he says, referring to the leader of the Tigers, Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

Analysts say Mr. Prabhakaran has little to gain by reaching a peace accord. He stands to lose control of the virtually independent state he already administers in the northern Jaffna region.

Meanwhile, the offensive has resulted in thousands being displaced and more than 300 deaths. The renewed fighting is scaring off foreign tourists and investors.

The Colombo stock market has tumbled along with the peace prospects, losing 30 percent of its value since October.

"The business community was banking very heavily on this peace dividend," says Arjun Mahendra, an economist with Crosby Securities here. "Now it is vanishing from the horizon."

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