With the peace talks in Geneva breaking down over the issue of re-opening the strategic A9 highway linking south Sri Lanka with Jaffna in the north, Sri Lankans are bracing themselves for a resumption of war and terrorist bombings.
True, both sides promised not to launch any military offensives or violate the Ceasefire Agreement, but the deadlock on a critical issue such as the road, and the fact that the next meeting depended on a resolution of the issue, have deepened fears of another war.
Thus, land, sea and air action seem to be in store for the Tamil-speaking North and East, and terrorist bombings seem to be a distinct possibility in the Sinhala-speaking south.
"It is a frightening prospect," commented Iqbal Athas, the defence correspondent of The Sunday Times.
"Will there be multiple bomb blasts in Colombo?" asked an anxious foreign diplomat.
Importance of A9
• Alpha 9, better known as A9, is described in military terms as the "Main Supply Route" to the troubled Jaffna peninsula.
• But even in civil terms, it is the main link and the shortest link between the Sinhala-speaking South Sri Lanka and the heartland of the Tamils, the Jaffna peninsula.
• The road passes through a vast area called Wanni, controlled by the LTTE. It touches the LTTE's political headquarters at Kilinochchi.
• The road has two highly guarded entry/exit points - at Omanthai, just north of Vavuniya at the southern end, and at Muhamalai, just south of Chavakacheri at the northern end.
• The LTTE took over the Wanni area between Jaffna and Vavuniya after the IPKF left in 1990, and used it as a refuge when Jaffna fell to the Sri Lankan army in 1995.
• During the ding dong battle over the Wanni and the road, between 1994 and 2002, the A9 remained closed.
• But with the beginning of the peace process in February 2002, the road was opened.
• The LTTE agreed to open it because it was unofficially allowed to collect taxes, road tolls and customs durties from the users of the highway.
• Estimates vary, but the Ministry of Defense says that collections range between SLRs 200 million and SLRs 300 million ($2.8 million) per month.
• However, the recent series of military operations, which began in late April, escalated to a point in August when the LTTE made a bold bid to crash into Jaffna through Muhalamai.
• The bid failed miserably, and the government used it as an excuse to close the A9 at the northern end.
• With Jaffna thus cut off, traffic ceased, and the LTTE's revenue touched rock bottom. Banned in the European Union and under FBI pressure in the US, the LTTE was chocking financially. The need to get the road became critical.
• The government knew that the LTTE's shoe was pinching. It said that it would use only the sea route to send essential supplies to the 600,000 people of Jaffna.
• The LTTE refused to assure safe passage, but the government was undeterred, though the supplies sent by ship were never adequate.
• The fact that only a fourth of the requirement of the civilians of Jaffna was being met, and that the people were on the verge of starvation, helped the LTTE build a strong case against the government on humanitarian grounds.
• But despite diplomatic pressure from Norway and the West, the Rajapaksa Govt decided to stick to its position that an open A9 would only help fill the war chest of the LTTE and pose a major threat to the government's position in Jaffna.
The LTTE has already charged that the Sri Lankan Armed forces are holding "provocative exercises" in Muhamalai, south of Jaffna.
Its military spokesman, R Ilanthirayan, said in Geneva that the Army chief, Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, had briefed commanders of fighting units in Jaffna last Saturday.
Government spokesman and websites were, however, silent on the LTTE's allegations. No eagerness to find meeting ground
The root cause of fears about another round of fighting is that at Geneva, neither the government nor the LTTE showed any eagerness to find middle ground or even a meeting ground on the road issue.
Both had made it a prestige issue, which could be settled only by a trial of brute strength on the ground.
In a press release issued after the talks, the government said that it would continue to supply all the needs of the Jaffna peninsula by a sea route, till such time the Muhamalai check point on the A9 road could be restored with "adequate protection for the civilians."
"When the LTTE was asked to provide safety assurances for the ships, this was refused," the government statement pointed out.
Blaming the LTTE for the closure of the road, it said that it was after the LTTE attacked Muhamalai in August, that the road had to be closed.
"The situation still remains insecure with the LTTE mounting attacks," the government said.
In its post-talks statement, the LTTE said that closure of the A9 was like erecting a "Berlin wall".
The 600,000 Tamil people of the Jaffna peninsula were living in an "open prison" guarded by 60,000 Sri Lankan troops, it said.
The LTTE charged that the government had a hidden "military agenda" behind the closure of the road.
When the government delegation argued that the closure of the A9 was not new and that it was closed between 1994 and 2002, the LTTE pointed out that that was a time of war and asked if by closing the road now, the government was intending to push the Tamil people to war, defeat them, and then negotiate with a subjugated people.
The LTTE said that it was ready to fix a date for the next meeting and had asked if the government would open the road before that date. But the government did not respond positively, it pointed out.