By Simon Gardner
COLOMBO, July 17 (Reuters) - Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has vowed to wrest control of all territory held by his Tamil Tiger rebel foes following the assassination overnight of a top government official in the restive east, his office said.
But analysts say the fatal shooting of Herath Abeyweera, Secretary of the Eastern Province, in the northeastern district of Trincomalee on Monday shows the Tigers are still a force to be reckoned with in the east — even though the military says it has captured much of the region after months of fighting.
Fighter jets roared low over the capital on Tuesday, rehearsing for a fly-past when Rajapaksa holds a national celebration ceremony on Thursday to mark the fall of the Tigers’ last eastern stronghold this month.
"This is yet another act of savagery by the LTTE in its campaign of terror to achieve its goal of a separate state, allegedly for the liberation of the Tamil people who are themselves severely oppressed by its violence and terror," Rajapaksa said in a statement issued by his office overnight.
"This assassination further strengthens our resolve not to give in to the forces of terror, but to proceed with our task of restoring freedom and democracy to the East, and all of Sri Lanka."
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on Tuesday denied involvement in the assassination, but analysts said it bore the hallmarks of countless past killings by the rebels, who have vowed to attack major economic and military targets in a bid to crippled the $23 billion economy.
"We had nothing to do with it," rebel military spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiraiyan said by telephone from the northern rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi. "We don’t have any idea who was behind this. Maybe it was for political gain."
The Tigers have rarely admitted to assassinations, but few have any doubt the group — widely outlawed as a banned terrorist group by the likes of the United States, Britain and the European Union — was responsible.
"There is no doubt it was them," said Iqbal Athas, an analyst for Jane’s Defence Weekly. "This is proof that the rebel group is very much active in the east."
"There is no doubt this is a retaliatory strike for the military operation to capture Thoppigala (in the east)."
An estimated 4,500 people have been killed since last year after a 2002 ceasefire broke down on the ground and civil war resumed, and fierce fighting has now spread from the east to the north.
The foes fought an hours-long battle on Saturday as government troops advanced past defence lines that separate government from rebel-held territory in the north, with at least 10 troops killed and dozens injured after they were caught in a minefield.
Reuters reporters who visited the rebel stronghold this week heard intense artillery and multi-barrel rocket fire across defence lines, and saw Tiger fighters training for an assault at a clandestine camp.
Analysts and ordinary civilians living inside rebel territory now fear a bloodbath if troops try to capture the Tigers’ northern stronghold.
And while the Tigers have lost control of territory they occupied in the east, they have now switched back to guerrilla mode and experts say there is no clear winner on the horizon to a conflict that has killed nearly 70,000 people since 1983.