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The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, are a separatist group in Sri Lanka. Since the 1980s, the LTTE have been agitating for a homeland for ethnic Tamils, who feel persecuted by Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority, the Sinhalese. The LTTE is notorious for having pioneered the suicide bomb jacket, as well as the use of women in suicide attacks. They are blamed for a dozen high-level assassinations, over two hundred suicide attacks, and its war against the government has cost more than seventy thousand lives. In May 2009, the Sri Lankan government declared the twenty-six year long conflict had ended. The military claimed it had defeated the rebels and killed the LTTE’s elusive leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran. The group conceded defeat and in a statement said it had decided to lay down its arms. However, some experts warn it may be too early to write off the group, which has proved to be a ruthless guerilla outfit in the past. Both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military have been accused of engaging in abductions, extortion, conscription, and the use of child soldiers.
Who are the Tamils?
The Tamils are an ethnic group that lives in southern India (mainly in the state of Tamil Nadu) and on Sri Lanka, an island of 21 million people off the southern tip of India. Most Tamils live in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, and they comprise approximately 10 percent of the island’s population, according to a 2001 government census. Their religion (most are Hindu) and Tamil language set them apart from the four-fifths of Sri Lankans who are Sinhalese—members of a largely Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking ethnic group. When Sri Lanka was ruled as Ceylon by the British, most Sri Lankans regarded the Tamil minority as collaborators with imperial rule and resented the Tamil’s perceived preferential treatment. But since Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, the Sinhalese majority has dominated the country. The remainder of Sri Lanka’s population includes ethnic Muslims, as well as Tamil and Sinhalese Christians.
What kind of terrorist attacks have the LTTE undertaken?
The LTTE, which may have between 7,000 and 15,000 armed combatants (PDF), is notorious for its suicide bombings. Since the late 1980s, the group has conducted approximately two hundred suicide attacks. Targets have included transit hubs, Buddhist shrines, and office buildings. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the LTTE invented the suicide belt and pioneered the use of women in suicide attacks. LTTE fighters wear cyanide capsules around their necks so they can commit suicide if they are captured.
Beyond suicide bombings, the LTTE has used conventional bombs and Claymore mines to attack political and civilian targets, and has gunned down both Sri Lankan officials and civilians. In an April 2008 report, the U.S. State Department also accuses the LTTE of engaging in abductions and extortion. According to the report, violations of the 2002 cease-fire agreement by both the LTTE and the government have killed more than 5,000 people since 2006.*
Many of the LTTE’s victims have been public officials. Over the past twenty years, the LTTE has been accused of assassinating almost a dozen high-level figures, including two heads of state. Assassinations and attacks on officials allegedly committed by the LTTE include:
- The May 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at a campaign rally in India;
- the May 1993 assassination of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa;
- the July 1999 assassination of a Sri Lankan member of parliament, Neelan Thiruchelvam, an ethnic Tamil involved in a government-sponsored peace initiative;
- a pair of December 1999 suicide bombings in Colombo that wounded Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga;
- the June 2000 assassination of Sri Lankan Industry Minister C.V. Goonaratne;
- the August 2005 assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar;
- the January 2008 assassination of a member of parliament from the opposition United National Party (UNP), T. Maheswaran;
- the January 2008 assassination of Sri Lankan Nation-Building Minister D. M. Dassanayake;
- the February 2008 assassination of two cadres of the political party and paramilitary group Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP); and
- the April 2008 assassination of Sri Lankan Highway Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle.
How have recent peace efforts fared?
While the LTTE was active in the months leading up to September 11, 2001, a lull in violence preceded a February 2002 cease-fire agreement. Whether the 9/11 attacks encouraged this is not clear. Later that year, rebels and the government reached a power-sharing agreement in hopes of achieving a lasting peace.
Violence resumed in July 2004 when a suicide bomber strapped explosives to her body in Colombo, killing herself and four policemen. The LTTE claimed the attack was "an operation of some elements who are working to disrupt peace efforts," accusing the military and police of backing a breakaway LTTE leader responsible for the suicide bombing.
Tensions continued to rise until the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 30,000 people in Sri Lanka and brought relative peace between the rebels and the government. But the August 2005 assassination of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar-for which the rebels are blamed though they deny any involvement-disrupted the peace and once again put the LTTE at odds with the Sri Lankan government.
By July 2006, fighting had reached its worst levels since the period before the 2002 ceasefire. Hundreds have been killed in the most recent wave of violence, and the United Nations reports tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes. The Sri Lankan government unilaterally pulled out of the 2002 cease-fire agreement in January 2008, and Nordic cease-fire monitors withdrew from the country. The government increased military operations against the Tigers, and in May 2009 claimed it had defeated the rebel group. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, a terrorism database, more than 13,000 people were killed in 2009, including over 9,000 civilians, the highest number of casualties in a single year since the conflict began.
Does the LTTE have ties to al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups?
Experts say that the secular, nationalist LTTE has no operational connection with al-Qaeda, its radical Islamist affiliates, or other terrorist groups. However, some of the Tigers’ innovations—such as the "jacket" apparatus worn by individual suicide bombers—have been copied by al-Qaeda, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, and Palestinian groups such as Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
In its early days, experts say the LTTE did train with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The group may still interact with other terrorist organizations through illegal arms markets in Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia.
How does the Sri Lankan government handle the LTTE?
Since the end of the 2002 cease-fire, the Sri Lankan government has aggressively pursued LTTE fighters. Halfway through 2007, the Sri Lankan government took effective control of Sri Lanka’s eastern province, though it has had trouble defeating LTTE combatants in the north. On its website, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense catalogues alleged victories against the LTTE. The United States has helped train Sri Lankan forces in agencies that relate to counterterrorism. According to the State Department, the government of Sri Lanka cooperated with the United States to implement both the Container Security Initiative and the Megaports program at the port of Colombo.
But the Sri Lankan government has also attracted widespread criticism for its alleged human rights abuses. Like the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government has been accused of engaging in extrajudicial killings, abductions, extortion, conscription, and the use of child soldiers. In August 2007, Human Rights Watch released a report that catalogues the various human rights abuses conducted in Sri Lanka by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military. In January 2009, Human Rights Watch said both the government and the LTTE were placing civilians at risk in their ongoing war. Brad Adams, the organization’s Asia director, said: "The government and the LTTE appear to be holding a perverse contest to determine who can show the least concern for civilian protection."
* Editor’s Note: Corrects to say U.S. State Department attributed deaths to both LTTE and the Sri Lankan government.