The Sri Lankan government on Thursday rejected Norway's call for an end to the current hostilities in North-Eastern Sri Lanka and withdrawal to the positions held by the two warring parties at the time of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002.
The government defence spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwela, told newspersons that under "normal circumstances" there could have been a withdrawal, but not when the issue was a water blockade by the LTTE, severely affecting 15, 000 families of small farmers cultivating 30,000 acres of paddy land.
"The government is not conducting a military operation but a humanitarian one. We are determined to attain the objective of reopening the sluice gates," he said.
"However, if the LTTE were to open the gates on its own, the operations will stop", he added.
On July 20, the LTTE had closed the sluice gates of the Mavil Aaru dam in the Trincomalee district of Eastern Sri Lanka, and had refused to reopen it unless a tank was constructed to provide water to Mutur East and Eachchalampattu, areas under its control. The tank was long pending project.
The government had tried to argue that construction of the tank was a time consuming process, and that, at any rate, it could not be linked to opening the sluice gates of the Mavil Aaru dam to let out water for irrigation.
If water was not let out on time, thousands of acres of paddy would be destroyed, the government said.
But the LTTE was adamant.
"The LTTE has been using this issue to push the government towards war," Rambukwela charged.
Asked why the government had not got international support on this issue, Rambukwela said that government had not sought international support as everybody would agree that the government's actions were motivated by humanitarian considerations.
On Wednesday, Peace facilitator Norway had called upon the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to immediately cease hostilities and go for talks to end the dispute over water.
Norway's chief peace broker and International Development Minister, Erik Solheim said: "Norwayurges the immediate cessation of hostilities on both sides in order to pave the way for negotiations aimed at resolving the water dispute."
"The LTTE must reopen the water supply to prevent further civilian suffering and damage to crops, and both parties' military forces must withdraw to the positions they held when they entered into the Ceasefire Agreement in 2002."
"The situation is now deadlocked and could easily lead to an escalation of the armed conflict. The hostilities violate the Ceasefire Agreement."
Close to a hundred armed combatants and civilians have perished in the last week or so in firing, aerial bombing, sea battles and land mine attacks.
The war over water had spread to Batticaloa, Mullaitivu and Mannar districts.
On Thursday, there was artillery shelling in the North Western district of Mannar.
Peace broker to seek meeting with LTTE chief
Over the next few days, Norway's Special Peace Envoy, Jon Hanssen Bauer, will be trying to meet the LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, to resolve two critical issues:
• Ending the current hostilities
• Getting the LTTE to give up its boycott of truce monitors from the European Union (EU) countries on the grounds that EU has lost its neutrality since it banned the outfit in May.
The Sri Lankan government has been given to understand that the Hanssen Bauer has sought a meeting with Prabhakaran.
But nobody knows if the Tiger chieftain will agree to a meeting or turn up for the meeting.
Earlier, the Japanese Special Envoy, Yasushi Akashi, had tried and failed.
Monitors form the EU countries Sweden, Denmarkand Finland, numbering 35 in all, have quit the mission, as the LTTE said that they would not be entertained after September 1.
This leaves the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) with just 21 members, 17 from Norwayand 4 from Iceland, which are not in the EU.
Substitutes are difficult to get. For one thing, the CFA says that the monitors will have to be from the Nordic countries.
Conflicting claims over Mutur
A day after the LTTE made a surprise attack on Mutur, a Muslim majority town south of Trincomalee, it is not still clear as to which side controls it.
Both the government and the LTTE claim "total" control over it and only admit mopping up operations to clear the area of stragglers.
Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwela said on Thursday, that Mutur was "totally" under the control of the army and that there were only pockets of resistance by the LTTE, the bulk of whom having withdrawn on Wednesday itself.
"There is some mortar and small arms firing going on now," he said.
The LTTE had infiltrated into Mutur town, disguised as civilians, and were using the local Muslim population as a human shield in the fighting against the Sri Lankan commandos.
"But the Muslims are with us, giving us a lot of information by phone about the movements of the LTTE," he said.
However, the LTTE maintained that the town was in its hands, but added that there was heavy fighting in the jetty area.
Mutur is connected to Trincomalee across the KoddiyarBayby a ferry service.
Sources in Trincomalee said that the army had not been able to enter Mutur town in any numbers, after a commando force which had entered on Wednesday, was beaten back by fierce LTTE resistance, backed by mortar and artillery fire from Sampur in the East.
10 killed in Arabic college
Heavy shelling by both the sides - the LTTE from Sampur, and the Sri Lankan Navy from the Trincomalee naval base - had killed 10 Muslims hiding in the Mutur Arabic college, the Tamilnet said.
About 9,000 people, mostly Muslims, are currently trapped in Mutur. They have taken shelter in mosques and other public buildings.
Sources in Trincomalee said that the LTTE was patrolling the streets in motorcycles and asking residence to stay indoors.
Troops reach West sluice gate in Mavil Aaru
Meanwhile, in the Mavil Aaru sector, south west of Mutur, troops, moving slowly and cautiously through mine fields, had reached the West sluice gate of the Mavil Aaru dam, the government defence spokesman, Rambukwela, said.
"But progress in respect of the Eastern gate has been slow because about 1,000 sq meters around it are an open space, making the troops vulnerable to mortar shelling," he added.