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Highway issue may wreck Lanka talks

LTTE warns for the peace bid to move forward, the A9 higway issue must be taken up, reports PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Oct 27, 2006 18:41 IST

The controversial issue of re-opening the A9 highway linking Vavuniya with Jaffna, the only practical land route from South Sri Lanka to the North, may rock or even wreck the government-LTTE talks to begin in Geneva on October 28.

A Geneva-datelined report in the Tamil daily Sudar Oli on Friday quoted the leader of the LTTE delegation, SP Tamilselvan, as saying that if there was no progress on the issue of opening the highway, the peace process might not go forward.

The LTTE is thus sure to raise the issue in a major way at the talks. But the government is not expected to give in. A deadlock is foreseen. 

The government feels that the opening of the highway would be detrimental to the people and pose a security threat to it. It may open the floodgates to Jaffna. 

Humanitarian catastrophe

But the LTTE, as well as the Norwegian peace brokers and the international community, want the highway to be opened immediately to avoid a major humanitarian catastrophe in the Jaffna peninsula.

The northern peninsula is currently on the verge of starvation because food stalks are running out.

According to the Eelam Peoples' Revolutionary Liberation Front (Pathmanabha), a group opposed to the LTTE, the 1.75 lakh families in Jaffna are getting only one forth of their requirements through the government-run cooperative shops.

For the remainder, they have to go to private traders who charge exorbitantly.

In the black market, a kilo of rice sells at SLRs 120 to 160 (INR 60 to 80), sugar at SLRS 250 to 400,and wheat flour at SLRs 90 to 120.

The prices are so heavy that people are running out of cash. 

The government insists on moving essential goods by sea and air. But air transport is very expensive and bad weather is preventing ships from sailing regularly.

The sea voyage is risky also because the ICRC has refused to escort vessels in the absence of a guarantee of safe passage from the LTTE.

The LTTE is refusing to give a guarantee because it wants to force the government to open the land route.

This is partly because the land route is the cheapest and the easiest, and partly because the LTTE itself stands to benefit enormously if the land route is opened.

Firstly, the LTTE will be able to get essential goods for regions under its control.

Secondly, it will make money by levying taxes on goods entering areas under its control.

The A9 passes through a long stretch of land under LTTE control.

The government is reluctant to open the A9 highway because the LTTE will re-start collecting taxes and making a neat pile every month, which will fill up its war chest. The LTTE could also divert some goods for its use.

The LTTE is said to be making several hundred million rupees every month through its "customs duties" and other levies, which the government describes as day light robbery or extortion because it is patently illegal.

But when the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was signed in February 2002 and the A9 was opened as a result of that, the LTTE was allowed by the then Sri Lankan government to levy tolls and taxes as part of the confidence building process.

Subsequent governments continued the practice, until recently, when open warfare began in a big way, and the road was closed.

The road remains closed at the northern Muhamalai end because the Thenmarachchi region has seen some of the bitterest fighting in recent times. The area continues to be tense.