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  July 26, 2001  

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Tigers play into government's hands

COLOMBO - Tamil Tiger separatists delivered a crushing blow to the Sri Lankan government on Tuesday, attacking a military airbase and the country's international airport. However, President Chandrika Kumaratunga's worst enemy still remains the main opposition party.

"For Kumaratunga, political survival is much greater that anything else at the moment," one analyst said, referring to Kumaratunga's struggle to stay in power after a key ally switched sides last month and left her ruling party in the minority in parliament.

She has also suspended parliament in a bid to stay in power, while her political foes join forces against her. "Her biggest nemesis is opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe and his United National Party [UNP], not Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran," added the analyst, who requested anonymity.

Still, the government's swift response on Tuesday, hours after the Tigers destroyed 10 planes and damaged three more in daring strikes on the country's biggest military and civilian airports, was to send warplanes on bombing raids in the northern Jaffna peninsula. affna is the stronghold of Tamil Tiger fighters, who have been seeking their own homeland in an 18-year-old bloody insurgency that has claimed the lives of 60,000 people in the country.

"The response [bombing] was typical and expected," said Jehan Perera, a political commentator and media director of the Colombo-based National Peace Council (NPC), a local NGO working toward a peaceful end to the internal conflict.

No details of the bombing raids in the Jaffna peninsula were immediately known but the damage from Tuesday's attacks near the Sri Lankan capital was devastating - with tourism the first casualty. Tourism analysts said the industry would take longer to recover than in the past when it took similar hits. No tourist was injured on Tuesday.

The government said eight air force and five Sri Lankan Airlines planes had been hit by mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Of these, 10 were destroyed. Thirteen Tigers, including five suicide bombers, and five troops died in fighting at the air force base and Bandaranaike International Airport at Katunayake, about 30 kilometers north of the capital.

"Tourism has not been harmed directly in the past, unlike today when the rebels attacked the national carrier Sri Lankan Airlines," said Dushanth Wijesinghe, research director at stockbroker Asia Securities Ltd. The tourism sector, which has seen many ups and downs in the past but has been a resilient sector, was expected to see up to 450,000 arrivals this year, against 400,000 in 2000. This figure will now be a difficult target to achieve, he said.

Wijesinghe added that there was a likelihood of some foreign airlines pulling out and tourists scheduled to visit Sri Lanka being diverted to other destinations in the next three to six months. "The tourism authorities would need a major public relations exercise to convince people that the country is safe for visitors," he added.

He said that because it lost half its fleet in the attack, Sri Lankan Airlines was also probably contemplating renting or hiring planes from other airlines, with Dubai-based Emirates Airlines being the first choice. Emirates has a 40 percent stake in Sri Lankan Airlines and is also responsible for managing the Colombo airline.

The attack would not have come at a worst time for the beleaguered Sri Lankan president. Kumaratunga has been fighting for her government's political survival after a key ruling People's Alliance (PA) ally crossed over to opposition ranks last month. That move swelled the numbers of the opposition and for the first time in seven years - since the PA came to power in 1994 - the ruling party became a minority in parliament. As a survival tactic, Kumaratunga suspended parliament for two months to September and called a referendum for August 21, when people will be asked whether they want a new constitution.

The twin moves were condemned by opposition parties, which joined ranks and have become a formidable force against the ruling party. The suspension of parliament was aimed at scuttling an opposition move to oust the government through a no-confidence vote in the legislature - which the PA fears it could lose.

Last week, two people were killed when police opened fire at protesters at anti-government rallies across the capital led by the UNP. Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe accused police of trying to kill him after he was tear-gassed and shots fired at him.

The People's Liberation Front (JVP), Sri Lanka's main Marxist force and the third largest political party in the country, organized a separate protest on Monday.

But analysts said Kumaratunga would now use the Tamil Tiger attacks to her advantage, even though her government has been badly weakened, politically and economically. It was therefore unusual for government ministers to blame the UNP for being partly responsible for the strikes.

Urban Development Minister Mangala Samaraweera, a close aide to the president, said the Tiger fighters had sneaked into the city under the guise of taking part in last week's UNP-led protest marches in Colombo. UNP's Wickremasinghe angrily denied the allegation at a news conference, saying the government should be blamed for the security lapse that led to Tuesday's attack, which has been called one of the most serious attacks by the Tigers.

But as in the past, it is most unlikely that ministers or security officials will resign. Aviation Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle said hat the damage to Sri Lankan Airlines planes was worth US$300 million, and losses to the air force $30 million.

NPC's Perera said the attack would on one hand put the war back on the agenda, but would on the other hand further distance the Tigers and the government from prospective peace talks. "There has been a lull in terms of the conflict and this situation will bring it back. But on the other hand this will be a severe blow to peace talks, which have been on the backburner after the recent political upheaval in Colombo," he said.

The Norwegian government has been acting as a facilitator to try to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, but has recently run into roadblocks in the process.

Keethish Loganathan, an analyst at the local think tank Center for Policy Alternatives, said the attack was a military response to the recent wave of air force bombings on Tiger positions in the northern Jaffna peninsula.

"The rebels' response to those attacks was more than symbolic. It was also unconnected to the 18th anniversary of the 1983 July ethnic riots which flared up across the country," he said. He was referring to the widespread rioting against minority Tamils and attacks on their properties by majority Sinhalese on the night of July 23, 1983, which led to an escalation of the conflict. The riots occurred after 13 Sinhalese soldiers were ambushed and killed by the Tigers in Jaffna.

While most news agencies and newspaper columnists believe Tuesday's attacks were connected to the "Black July" riots, Loganathan said he was not convinced it was so. "It is more connected to recent bombing raids in the peninsula. The air force was making some successful strikes in the peninsula and the rebels had to show some response," he added.

(Inter Press Service)

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