Jaffna Harbors a Stormy History As Tamil Rebels' Cultural Haven

The war-ravaged city of Jaffna is the ultimate symbol of the separate state for which Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels have been fighting since 1983.

Fierce battles between the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) and government troops were raging on Friday around Jaffna, which lies at the end of a peninsula on the remote northern tip of the Indian Ocean island.

Before the ethnic conflict took off the Jaffna peninsula despite its dry and flat landscape was home to some 750,000 Tamils, Moslems and Sri Lanka's majority ethnic group, the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese.

War casualties, a steady exodus of refugees to India and other countries and the departure of non-Tamils have since whittled the peninsula's population down to less than 500,000 and the local economy has taken a beating.

The Jaffna peninsula has a few seductive beaches, but no tourists make it nowadays to this part of Sri Lanka.

There are few large industries on the peninsula, where the main economic activities are fishing and agriculture.

Jaffna was first inhabited by Tamils from southern India around 204 BC.

For many of Sri Lanka's Tamils, who account for 18 percent of the country's 19 million people, it remains an emotive symbol of their identity for which many are prepared to lay down their lives.

Stormy History

A Portuguese stronghold at Jaffna fell into Dutch hands after a three-month siege in 1658. The remains of a star-shaped Dutch fortification still stand on a mound near the lagoon which curves into the jagged peninsula.

British colonialists seized the region from the Dutch in 1795 and ruled until 1948 when Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, gained independence.

The city of Jaffna became the capital of Sri Lanka's Northern Province, which comprises the districts of Mannar, Jaffna, Killinochchi, Mullaitivu and Vanuniya.

In 1990, Indian peacekeeping forces withdrew from Jaffna and the LTTE took effective control. Then, at the end of 1995, the Sri Lankan army recaptured the city and imposed military rule.

The latest offensive by the Tamil Tigers in a war that has cost over 60,000 lives gathered momentum last month after they wrested control of a vast military complex at Elephant Pass, which straddles the isthmus gateway to Jaffna.

Taking Jaffna at the other side of the lagoon from Elephant Pass would be a symbolic gain for the LTTE, which has virtually penned in some 30,000 government troops on the peninsula.

But for a strategic victory it would need to capture the heavily fortified airport at Palali further north and the nearby port of Kankesanturai, which lies on a sea route up to the Bay of Bengal off India's eastern coast.