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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Suicide bombers -- weapon of choice for Sri Lanka rebels

COLOMBO, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Long associated with sectarian violence in the Middle East, the suicide attack has been refined by Sri Lanka's secularist Tamil Tiger rebels into a sophisticated weapon of war.

Spearheaded by the Black Tigers suicide squad and their naval wing, the Black Sea Tigers, the rebels have for years assassinated political and military figures in their fight against the Sinhalese-dominated state.

"There is no doubt about it, they have perfected the art of the suicide bomb," said one Western diplomat.

With Sri Lanka's ethnic rivals now back on the battlefield,

fears abound that one of the defining symbols of modern conflict -- the suicide bomber -- will again become commonplace in this compact seaside capital.

Analysts generally agree that the Tigers pioneered the use of the concealed suicide bomb vest -- a technology now used to deadly effect across the world.

Among their victims were former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, killed in 1991 with a prototype suicide vest, and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa, hit two years later.

Military personnel, rival Tamil politicians, and ordinary people have all felt the Tigers' deadly strikes.


Security experts say the Tamils have adapted the strategy to battles on land and, most notably, at sea, where suicide "swarm tactics" against the Sri Lankan navy have been highly effective.

Some fear these tactics could be used to disrupt global shipping lanes, perhaps by groups such as al Qaeda. But despite Sri Lankan government suggestions, independent experts and diplomats say there is simply no evidence Islamist militant groups have links to the Tigers.

"The (Sri Lankan) navy is scared to death of the suicide boats," said another Western military expert who closely follows this decades-old conflict. "It's a very effective way to fight if you don't have guided missiles."

Tiger sources put their number of suicide "martyrs" in the many thousands since the early 1980s, and morale among Black Tigers, who wear a cyanide vial around their neck to guard against being taken alive, is said to be strong.

Iqbal Athas, an analyst at Jane's Defense Weekly, said the bombers constituted a serious threat. "The degree of motivation, that degree is very high."

A survey of suicide attacks worldwide between 1980 and 2003 found that 24 percent were the work of the Tigers, outpacing such Middle Eastern armed movements as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, who led the study, has argued that the prominence of Tamil secularist bombers casts doubt on the notion that suicide attack are largely the product of radical Islamist ideology or promises of heavenly reward by hardline clerics.

Athas, the Jane's analyst, said Tiger suicide missions involved careful planning. Some relied on "sleeper" agents put in place years ahead of an attack.

He said there were traces of Hindu ideals of personal sacrifice within the secular world view of the Tamil Tigers. "They call the dead (bombers) seeds of their revolution."

Tigers speak of "abandoning" life in the struggle against an unjust world, a concept rooted in Hindu teachings. Christian elements -- many Tigers are Catholic -- can also be seen in the use of the term "witness" for suicide attackers.

Other analysts point to the well-entrenched place of suicide in Sri Lankan society. Medical studies regular put the country at or near the top in terms of self-inflicted death rates.

A Tamil rebel propaganda video available on the Internet celebrates Black Tiger defiance, and rebels and their supporters fete the memory of the suicide bomber units on Black Tiger Day each July 5, chosen to commemorate the first such attack more than 19 years ago.
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