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Sri Lanka battles a weakened Tamil Tigers

Government forces drove the Tamil Tigers from a key town Monday, adding to rebels' diplomatic woes.

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After more than a week of fighting with the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan Army Monday captured a strategically important rebel position. The Tigers retreated from Sampur without much resistance, following days of pounding from the military's Israeli-made Kfir jets.

Although a fragile cease-fire from 2002 still technically prevents the country from returning to the 19-year-long civil war, Tiger losses on the battlefield and on the international front have, for the first time in many years, opened up the possibility of an eventual defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The recent fighting shows that the Tigers "don't have the capability to wipe out the Sri Lankan garrisons," says Maj. Gen. Ashok Mehta (ret.), who led an ill-fated Indian peacekeeping force against the Tigers in 1987. Back then, the Tigers withstood the fourth-largest army in the world, killing 1,200 Indian soldiers. "The LTTE [in the late '80s and '90s] was made of sterner stuff."

The Tiger rebels, who invented suicide bombing and are famous for overwhelming targets with speed and fire power, have over the years emerged as a formidable nonstate force.

However, the recent spate of fighting with the government – the fiercest since the cease-fire – suggests otherwise. In fighting on Saturday, the Tigers' sophisticated naval wing was routed by the Sri Lankan Navy as they tried to infiltrate the northern Jaffna peninsula. According to the Sri Lankan military, 13 of the Tigers' 30 suicide boats were destroyed by the Navy while the rest were forced to retreat.

Since the cease-fire, the Sri Lankan Army has significantly replenished its manpower and military stockpile, dwarfing the strength of the Tigers. However, the Army's victories are not being attributed as much to their martial competence as to the debilitations faced by the Tigers.

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