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Sri Lanka situation alarming but war unlikely

The situation in the island nation is alarming as the Tamil rebels have pulled out of Geneva peace talks citing growing violence.

india Updated: Apr 26, 2006 20:32 IST

The situation in Sri Lanka, where Tamil Tiger guerrillas have formally pulled out of the Geneva peace talks citing growing violence, is alarming but a full-scale war is unlikely for now, well-placed diplomatic sources say.

Nevertheless, diplomats in Colombo - and others here - expect a spurt in bloodshed in the island's northeast where rapidly escalating violence has made a mockery of the 2002 Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government.

"The situation is really very bad, but we still have a ray of hope," one Western diplomat told the agency over the phone from Colombo.

"The LTTE remains committed to the Geneva talks in principle. Let us see if everyone agrees to a new date."

Norway's special envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer was on Thursday told of the LTTE decision not to attend the already postponed meeting in Geneva, scheduled for April 24-25.

The LTTE told him it would change its mind if killings by government forces halted.

Even while pulling out of Geneva, the LTTE has taken care to underline that Colombo, not the Tigers, should be held accountable for the decision.

This, diplomats said, was primarily because the LTTE was wary of offending the Western members of Sri Lanka's co-chairs to the peace process (the US, European Union and Norway besides Japan) as well as Switzerland, the host country for the talks.

Another diplomat in Colombo told IANS that for this reason alone, a full-scale military conflict was unlikely right now between the Tigers and the government though the LTTE was expected to come up with more dramatic attacks.

"It is clear the LTTE has distributed enough number of claymore mines (in the northeast)," the diplomat said. "Naturally, these will be put to use. They are already being used."

Added another source: "A section in the LTTE is itching to resume the war. And some in the military establishment believe the time has come to crush the Tigers."

Diplomats say both the LTTE and Colombo need to be pulled up for allowing the situation to deteriorate to such a pass.

Tensions have boiled over in recent weeks in Sri Lanka's northeast, with the LTTE accusing the government and rival groups of targeting its supporters and Tamil civilians. The Tigers have been blamed for killing soldiers and pro-government Tamils.

According to diplomats, at the heart of the LTTE-Colombo friction is the breakaway rebel faction led by their former commander Karuna, who has seriously undermined the Tigers in Sri Lanka's east, particularly in his home district of Batticaloa.

The LTTE says the government is covertly backing the "Karuna faction". Colombo denies the charge. But most diplomats believe there is an element of truth in the charges levelled by the LTTE.

At the first round of talks in Geneva in February, the Sri Lankan government pledged to disarm all "armed groups" other than security forces in its territory.

Its officials have said that Karuna's forces were operational only in LTTE-controlled areas.

Although Karuna's men are no match to the LTTE in numbers or weaponry, they have, since their split in March 2004, pursued a destabilising campaign against the Tigers, using tactics they learnt while in that group.

The belief in diplomatic circles is that while Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse is amenable to placing curbs on the Karuna group, which this month set up a political office in Batticaloa, the military and the Sinhalese-Marxist JVP, a government ally, are bitterly opposed to any suffocation of a man they consider a vital ally in their war against LTTE.

In the process, the tensions in Sri Lanka are only expected to increase, leading to more killings, unless the two sides to the conflict come up with a working arrangement that can push the peace process forward.

And if killings and counter-killings continue unabated, they could spark off a full-scale armed conflict.