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Sri Lanka: The new war zone

A surge of violence has raised fears the island could be sliding back into war.

india Updated: Apr 29, 2006 15:02 IST

Two decades of bloodshed between Sri Lankan security forces and Tamil rebels fighting for a separate homeland ended with a ceasefire in 2002, but a surge of violence has raised fears the island could be sliding back into war.

About 64,000 people were killed during the conflict. Another 800,000 were displaced and 200,000 fled to southern India.

The violence is rooted in ethnic divisions between the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the mainly Hindu Tamil minority, who say they have suffered decades of discrimination at the hands of the politically and economically dominant Sinhalese.

The growth of Sinhalese nationalism in the decades after Sri Lanka's independence from Britain in 1948 alienated many Tamils, eventually spurring calls for a separate homeland or "Eelam" in the north and east of the country.

The biggest of the rebel groups to emerge was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), founded in 1976.

War broke out in 1983 when the Tigers ambushed and killed an army patrol, sparking anti-Tamil riots. Hundreds of Tamils were killed and tens of thousands forced to flee their homes.

The conflict saw massacres, abductions and torture by both sides and thousands of child soldiers were recruited by the rebels. About 1 million landmines were planted by both sides.

India tried to intervene but ended up regretting it. In 1987 the Sri Lankan and Indian governments signed a pact giving limited autonomy to Tamil majority areas in the north and east. India sent peacekeepers to guarantee the agreement and disarm the rebels.

But widespread opposition to their presence and fighting with the Tigers led India to pull the last of its troops out in 1990. A year later, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a woman suicide bomber. The Tigers were blamed but denied involvement.

The rebels were also blamed for the assassination of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.

Peace talks opened in 1994 after President Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power, but they collapsed shortly afterwards.

The late 1990s was marked by aerial bombings, suicide bombings, the killing of both Sinhala and Tamil civilians, attacks on economic targets and face to face battles between government and rebel forces.

Tamil bombers targeted Sri Lanka's financial institutions, its holiest Buddhist site, the international airport and politicians. Kumaratunga narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in 1999, losing an eye.

Ceasefire

The Sept 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and the election of a new Sri Lankan prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, provided the impetus for peace talks.

The Tigers were keen to shed the "terrorist" label given to them by members of the international community.

A ceasefire was agreed in 2002 and the rebels dropped their demand for an independent state, settling for regional autonomy. But they withdrew from Norwegian-brokered peace talks a year later, saying not enough was being done to improve conditions for Tamils.

The government currently controls the Jaffna peninsula at the far northern tip of the island. Below that, the Tigers run a de facto state in large chunks of the north and east. They have their own flag, police, banks, courts and defence units including a naval wing, the Sea Tigers, and are believed to have smuggled up to four light aircraft into the country in pieces.

Peace off?

Internal divisions on both sides have stymied negotiations. After the ceasefire Kumaratunga fell out with her government over the peace process and a renegade eastern Tiger commander known as Karuna split from the rebel movement in 2004.

Clashes between the two factions have killed dozens. The Tigers say Karuna's fighters have become government-backed paramilitaries. The government denies this.

Tensions have risen since presidential elections in November 2005 won by Mahinda Rajapaksa. Allied to the Marxist JVP and Buddhist JHU parties, he promised to take a hard line with the Tigers.

Both sides say they are keen on peace talks, but cannot agree a venue. The government wants them in an Asian country while the rebels want them in Norway.

A surge in violence since the end of 2005 has inflamed the situation. The government blames the rebels for mine attacks on its forces and the suspected suicide sinking of a naval boat. The Tigers deny this and accuse the military of abuses against civilians.

Most troops patrolling Jaffna say they expect war sooner or later. A Tiger commander has warned that rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is at the edge of his patience and will resort to Black Tiger suicide bombers if the ceasefire breaks down.

Aid workers say they have heard of hundreds of families who have left Jaffna fearing new fighting, while more have fled in the east. Small numbers of Sri Lankans have also begun arriving in India.