Green Berets Playing Role In Bloody Civil War

BET YOU didn't know that Green Berets are training soldiers in a country with one of the deadliest and longest civil wars around. That country is Sri Lanka, and the U.S. role is being kept quiet both here and there.

WIRAWILA, Sri Lanka - About as far from the United States as you can get, 12 Green Beret specialists are training Sri Lankan soldiers in combat medical-evacuation techniques, radio work and field engineering. Live-fire exercises are next.

Unannounced and unreported, the U.S. military activity that began here this month involves considerable security and political risks. When the Green Berets leave their base in Wirawila, they go under well-armed guard. The reason: Over the past decade, terrorist bombs, the shelling of civilians and thousands of nighttime murders in Sri Lanka's civil war have left 50,000 people dead.

Unlike most joint military exercises, the Pentagon has not publicized this mission. Sri Lanka denies any active U.S. troops are in the country. And the mission has not been mentioned in Sri Lankan newspapers, which are heavily censored by a government sensitive about human-rights abuses laid at the feet of its military. U.S. role increasing

The mission - code-named "Operation: Balanced Style" - comes six years after Sri Lanka was the only Asian nation to offer refueling bases for U.S. warplanes during the Persian Gulf War.

It also comes at a time when the United States is more willing to sell Sri Lanka sensitive "lethal" military equipment, and when construction is under way here for one of the world's biggest "Voice of America" radio stations.

Until now, the United States has played little apparent role in the country's civil war - pitting Tamils fighting for a separate homeland in the north against the Sinhalese majority of the south, who want to keep Sri Lanka whole.

"We have no dog in this fight," said the U.S. military attache to Sri Lanka, Col. Carl Cockrum, who helped bring in the Green Berets.

But the small - yet increasingly frequent - presence of U.S. military advisers over the past two years strongly suggests that that formulation is changing.

So does the State Department's determination last year that the main rebels - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers - are a "terrorist group."

And so does the recent finding by U.S. human-rights monitors that the Sri Lankan government is seriously addressing its history of harboring quasi-official death squads. That positive State Department conclusion - which some human-rights groups in Sri Lanka say grossly overstates the progress - allows America to move even closer to Sri Lanka.

For its part, the Sri Lankan government (which has long included anti-American socialists) is acting more and more like a friend of America. Last year, the new government broke a campaign promise to reject plans for a Voice of America transmitter.

What's more, the government put down anti-VOA protests, causing one death and many injuries.

And although a ban on selling U.S. lethal equipment to Sri Lanka remains in place because of the government's human-rights record, the United States has clearly modified the definition of "lethal."

The United States recently sold six patrol boats to Sri Lanka and, sources said, is discussing the sale of guns to arm them, along with military helicopters. Sri Lankan inquiries about night-vision equipment also have been made.

Although Sri Lankan requests for U.S. satellite imaging technology were turned down, U.S. officials guided the Sri Lankans to Israeli suppliers.

Both U.S. and Sri Lankan officials in Colombo say there are good strategic reasons to be deepening ties. The U.S. military is attracted to the island's prime location between the Middle East and the Far East and near China. And Sri Lanka is seeking a political counterbalance to its giant neighbor, India.

But both sides also say they have good reasons to keep their arrangements low-key. India's experience is one. In 1987, it sent 50,000 peacekeepers but left three years later, having lost 1,500 troops. Then, in 1991, Tamil militants assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian prime minister who had sent Indian troops to their country.

Late last year, the Sri Lankan military stormed the Tamil north and routed the Tigers (and many civilians) from their stronghold. But the Tigers still control hundreds of miles of jungle and periodically send teams to attack patrols, villages and some heavily populated sites in Colombo. No solid consensus on rights

U.S. human-rights monitors and others generally report that Sri Lankan practices began to improve in 1993, just before the ruling party for the last 17 years was voted out. The new government of Chandrika Kumaratunga had run on a platform of respecting human rights and punishing those who had not.

In addition to setting up several commissions to investigate death squads, the new government also offered to negotiate with the Tamil minority - 20 percent of Sri Lanka's 18 million people. The Tamil militants entered into negotiations last year but later resumed attacks on the Sri Lankan army and civilians. The war continues today.

Some human-rights monitors are not convinced that conditions have significantly improved. "Yes, there has been some improvement from the early 1990s, but young Tamils and other people are still `disappearing' all the time," said Sherine Xavier, who is with a largely Tamil human-rights group.

Human-rights officials confirm that although trials of alleged death-squad participants are under way, nobody has been convicted. And some Sri Lankan officers accused of death-squad crimes remain on duty. Warning of anti-U.S. protests

Xavier also said the arrival of U.S. military advisers - word of which, she said, was circulating around Colombo despite censorship - was a risky step. "The message to Tamil people in particular is that the U.S. supports the government side," she said. "It will be a big thing - that's surely why they don't want to let it out."

Fernando Newton, a leader of the 1994 VOA protests who is with the Centre for Society and Religion, a church-sponsored group, said rumors in Colombo that U.S. military might be training Sri Lankan soldiers suggest "that all our initial fears about the VOA situation are coming true."

He added: "I hope it is not true, but if we learn there are American soldiers here in Sri Lanka, then we would have to protest."