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Sri Lanka army deserters win second chance

Tamil Tiger soldiers
Tamil Tiger rebels are fighting for independence in Sri Lanka's north  

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lanka's government has offered a nine-day general amnesty to woo back an estimated 25,000 army deserters.

The latest move, beginning Tuesday, is the first official confirmation that the government will not slow down its military campaign against Tamil Tiger rebels, despite efforts by Norway to facilitate direct talks.

Sri Lanka's president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, told CNN that talks would begin in two months. But she dismissed a self imposed rebel ceasefire, extended for its third month, as a ploy to re-arm and re-group.

"We are short of numbers and we need to get them," Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle told CNN. He said the latest general amnesty followed reports that a large number of military personnel wanted to return.

"Ongoing village level campaigns to honor soldiers involved in the war effort have made them feel left out. Others cannot find gainful employment since employers are forbidden under emergency regulations to obtain their services," he said.

Sri Lanka is perhaps the only country in the world whose army has repeatedly offered a general amnesty to soldiers who desert their positions.

Desertions generally result in severe punishment, including jail sentences and even the death penalty.

Mass arrests of deserters

Next week's general amnesty is the 13th since the People's Alliance government of Kumaratunga was voted to power in 1994.

Military spokesman Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne told CNN that more than 48,500 deserters surrendered during past amnesties.

"It's a recurring problem but we try to cope with it," he said.

The end of a general amnesty period has often been followed by police conducting mass arrests of deserters who do not give themselves up.

This month, such a move has greater significance because of concerted government efforts to fine tune its military machine.

After a string of military debacles at the hands of Tiger rebels, the government last year further modernised the security forces with multiple rocket launchers, intercepter jets, ground attack aircraft and offshore patrol vessels.

Troops in the troubled northern Jaffna peninsula are now being put through intense training in their present locations -- all measures pointing to a major crackdown before talks began.

Bargaining position

Such a move, which will oust rebels from territory they have seized recently, will further enhance the government's bargaining position at any future talks, political analysts say.

But others warn that with the rebel 'guerilla machine' still intact, a bloody nose for troops would have the opposite effect.

Unlike six years ago, the government has had international backing and military support.

Under a joint military training program codenamed 'Operation Balanced Style,' a team of U.S. Navy Seal commandos are at a secret location in southern Sri Lanka training their local counterparts.

Arriving last month to see them in action and to discuss future programs was Brigadier General Donald Wurster, Commander of the Special Operations Command, Pacific (COMSOCPAC).

He is the commander of all U.S. Special Operations Forces in the Pacific.

Last month, Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharaff, sent his number two, Lt. Gen. Muhamed Yusuf Khan to Colombo to offer a $25 million credit line to purchase military items.

He was preceded by Lt. Gen. Jiri Sedivy, Chief of General Staff of the Czech Republic, with offers to sell more hardware.

Bolstered by the British government's move to outlaw them, the Sri Lanka government seems set to enforce its twin-track policy of war on the battlefield and talks in the political front with Tamil Tiger rebels.

Whether the outcome would be continued war or a lasting peace remains the biggest question.

Heavy fighting in Sri Lanka's Jaffna Peninsula
Tamil rebels threaten Sri Lankan troops' supply line
Sri Lankan rebels call on civilians to evacuate Jaffna

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