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Former Rebel Commander Seen as Key to Sri Lankan Victory

After a quarter century of intermittent war in Sri Lanka, the country's security forces say they are within weeks of defeating the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

At this heavily guarded hotel on the outskirts of Colombo, Karuna Amman sits in a white lawnchair looking out toward the sea. Nearly a dozen bodyguards dressed in camouflage carrying assault rifles have formed a perimeter around him. He says he has many enemies.

That is not hard to believe. For more than a decade, he says he was the second-in-command for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which is fighting for a separate ethnic-Tamil state. He defected to the government five years ago.

In a rare interview, he says his defection dealt a serious blow to the rebels and paved the way for their eventual demise.

"After I broke away from the LTTE, they have had no proper leadership," said Karuna. "They can do killings and bombardments - those are the easy things. But they cannot win the war."

Karuna says he provided key tactical and technical advice to Sri Lanka's military, which began taking one rebel-held town after another. Now, after 25 years of fighting, Sri Lanka's military appears close to victory.

But Sri Lanka's Secretary of Defense, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, plays down Karuna's role in the military's recent successes.

"Karuna's role helped in this way: Absence of Karuna in the scene was a help because he had a base in the eastern provinces especially," he said. "He was a good fighter. And not having him as an enemy was a helpful thing."

Mr. Rajapaksa says Sri Lanka beefed up its armed forces by more than 40 percent, recruiting as many 7,000 people a month.

Karuna, who is 42 years old, once served as the bodyguard to the Tamil rebel chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and rose to command rebel forces in Sri Lanka's east. He is credited with several key rebel victories.

But Karuna grew more and more critical of Prabhakaran's increasing use of suicide bombers, who often killed innocent bystanders. He broke ranks with the rebels and sided with Sri Lankan forces, helping them recapture much of the island's east in 2007.

Defense Secretary Rajapaksa says the turning point in the war came in 2005 when his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was elected the country's president. He came to power amid a wave of nationalist fervor by the country's ethnic-Sinhalese majority. He says the government renewed its commitment to ending the war, once and for all.

"No ambiguity," said Rajapaksa. "We will not stop halfway. We gave clear instructions: No ceasefires, no negotiations until we defeat the LTTE completely."

That defeat, some analysts say, is not far away. The main holdup, Rajapaksa says, is the civilian population trapped by the fighting as the rebels try to defend a sliver of land in the island's northeast.

Meanwhile, India has offered to help evacuate many of those caught in the crossfire, mainly ethnic Tamils, who are facing shortages of food, clean water and medicines," he said.