In Sri Lanka, war dead don't add up
COLOMBO (AFP) — Judging by Sri Lankan government accounts of Tamil Tiger dead after decades of fighting, there should hardly be any rebels left.
Yet the guerrillas keep on fighting, and apparently dying in large numbers -- pointing either to an unlimited pool of combatants or a government wish to boost morale by playing up its prowess on the battlefield.
Analysts suspect it is more a case of the latter.
"There is a huge propaganda war going on to show that more people are being killed," said defence analyst Namal Perera.
"The new battlefield is the media."
Retired army colonel Susantha Seneviratne agreed there was "an exaggeration of Tiger casualties," after a week in which the government has reported around a dozen dead each day.
"This is not unique to Sri Lanka. Almost every army in the world does it," he said. "It is to help maintain morale."
There is no independent verification of casualties and journalists are not allowed to travel to the rebel mini-state in the north or the frontline, but experts and analysts agree the government figures do not add up.
Sri Lanka's chief military spokesman, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, insisted official figures only had a margin of error of "about 10 percent".
"Sometimes ground troops might see a terrorist falling and count him as dead, but he may only be seriously wounded," Nanayakkara explained.
"If we get the information from (Tiger) radio communications, then the numbers are accurate."
Although government forces have made major progress in battling the Tigers over the past year, including ousting them from their last stronghold in the east, there have been embarrassing setbacks.
In March the Tigers, who are fighting for an independent homeland, carried out their first air strike on Sri Lankan forces using what were believed to be two training planes smuggled into the island in bits and flown from a jungle air strip.
Last week, an elite suicide squad of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) infiltrated a key air base and virtually wiped out the fleet of spy planes used to spot rebel movements and bases.
Since then the defence ministry has been producing a handsome Tamil Tiger body count, while government troops barely suffer a scratch.
The security forces say they killed 3,284 Tiger rebels between December 2005, when a Norwegian-brokered truce began falling apart, and September this year.
Independent estimates put the size of the LTTE force at between 5,000 and 12,000 men and women -- meaning that at this rate of killing they should soon be running out of recruits.
Senior officials have in the past claimed there were only 500 Tiger rebels left, or that 85 percent of the guerrilla army had been wiped out.
"Statistics that lie in defence of the realm," the pro-opposition Leader newspaper said in a recent headline, citing the government claims.
"The defence ministry is... lying to the people by detailing exaggerated figures of the number of Tigers killed to achieve petty short term political objectives."
The defence ministry has now removed the overall tally of rebel dead from its website, but still gives a hefty daily toll.
Sunanda Deshapriya, director at the private Centre for Policy Alternatives think-tank, said the figures were clearly being massaged.
"By projecting a high number of people killed the parties have reduced the value of life," Deshapriya said.
"Killings are now generally accepted by society as a done thing, and the more the merrier."
According to Seneviratne, who writes on defence issue in local newspapers, the high Tiger casualties claimed by the military could backfire.
"When the fighting has been going on for so long and after claiming such heavy losses if you still can't beat them, then there is a credibility issue," Seneviratne told AFP.
"The high losses indicate that they (the Tigers) have committed fighters ready to die for a cause... You only give the impression that they are a very large force. They are not."
The LTTE releases its overall death toll in the last week of November, when it observes a "heroes week" to commemorate the war dead.
Last year, they paid respects to 18,742 cadres killed since 1982.
Independent analysts believe that overall, government forces have suffered similar losses.