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On a bloody front, Lanka troops want to hit back

Written by: Staff
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Sri Lanka, May 14: Standing by the bloody dust where he says two of his men were shot dead by Tamil Tiger rebels, Sri Lankan Army Lieutenant-Colonel Kumar Wijenayake knows what he wants to do.

He wants to send out his soldiers from their positions some 200 metres (yards) from Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) territory to flush out rebel fighters he believes crept across no-man's land to kill his men.

Nordic truce monitors say Sri Lanka and the Tigers have already resumed a low intensity war, but the government says it is limiting itself to tactical retaliation and under the terms of a 2002 truce that still holds on paper at least, Wijenayake must hold back.

''I am a military man, not a politician,'' he says, wearing a sweat and dust-stained khaki t-shirt and with a pistol stuck in the belt of his combat trousers. ''I think we should take more aggressive action. The enemy is attacking us, we should attack back.'' Diplomats say a lack of compromises on both sides led to the island's peace process stalling. More than 270 people have been killed since early April and talks have been postponed indefinitely. The recent violence looks a lot like periods of the island's two-decade civil war.

Yesterday, violence came to Wijenayake's battalion for the first time with a hit-and-run attack around the front line they hold just north of the town of Vavuniya.

The position is near an ethnic Tamil village abandoned during the war. The majority Sinhalese soldiers do not remember its name.

They only know it as the strong point held by Alpha Company, 10th Battalion, Sri Lankan Light Infantry (SLLI).

The troops say three or four rebel fighters crept up on the position in the late morning, picking their way through old wartime minefields. They lay in the brush, watching one of the most exposed sections of the front.

Eventually, two SLLI soldiers on patrol came into view. The suspected rebels fired bursts with AK47 assault rifles. The troops fired back, but the attackers escaped.

YEARNING TO RETALIATE

A bullet through the head killed one soldier instantly. His colleague died later from wounds to the chest and head. Reuters saw the bodies in the hospital morgue, still in tattered fatigues with blood drying on the tiled floor beneath the slabs.

The Tigers deny being behind most recent attacks on the military, but few believe them. The rebels say it is the government that has pushed the country to the fringes of war.

Firing across the front line has become increasingly common, as have increasingly serious naval clashes and government air strikes on rebel territory. Each side blames the other, and both say the ceasefire still holds.

For Lieutenant-Colonel Wijenayake, it is not that clear.

''Morale is OK,'' he told Reuters, strain clearly visible on the faces of his men as they nervously scanned the jungle. ''But because of the ceasefire agreement, we cannot dominate the area.

We cannot act in an offensive manner as we were trained.'' The monitors say there is no doubt the rebels are hitting the military, but they also believe members of the armed forces are retaliating by killing Tamil civilians. The military denies the charge.

Kanagaratnam Pushparani's niece was shot dead within 60 metres of an army position on another area of the front line near Vavuniya. The girl's sister was a Tiger fighter, and truce monitors say signs of army involvement in the killing are too strong to ignore.

''I strongly believe the army was involved in this killing,'' she told Reuters in Tamil. ''This girl was innocent. She did nothing. The immediate family has gone to the LTTE area. They were so afraid.''

REUTERS

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