Renewed conflict in Sri Lanka will escalate into full-scale war if the military follows through on a declared plan to evict the Tamil Tigers from the island's volatile east, a top rebel has warned.
Around 20,000 war-displaced Tamils have fled from camps in and around the eastern Tiger-held town of Vakarai since early November to escape deadly artillery battles that have killed dozens of civilians, some trekking for days through jungle and even swimming across rivers.
Nordic truce monitors are alarmed at the military's plan to flush the Tigers out of the area, saying it violates the terms of a now tattered 2002 ceasefire, and the international community has appealed in vain to both sides to halt the killing.
"Such actions by the Sri Lankan military will be considered by the LTTE as full scale war," SP Tamilselvan, head of the Tigers' political wing, told Reuters in an e-mail interview.
"It will certainly be a declaration of war by the Sri Lankan government. Such war-mongering by the Sri Lankan government will take the island to a very destructive and disastrous war."
The military has hemmed the Tigers into a 14-mile stretch of coastline around Vakarai, and has already driven the rebels out of territory near the strategic northeastern port of Trincomalee further north.
The area around Vakarai is the Tigers' only remaining direct sea access in the east, and losing it would leave them landlocked in large swathes of jungle inland and surrounded by government territory and army camps.
Officials say the government aims to clear the Tigers from the whole of the east and hold local elections that a faction of renegade rebels opposed to the Tigers and seen aligned to the military are expected to win, before heavily developing infrastructure there.
Thousands of ordinary civilians displaced yet again by renewed fighting, many of whom were still striving to rebuild their lives after the 2004 tsunami, are now living in rudimentary camps set up in schools, fields and even temples in government territory.
Some escapees accuse the Tigers of threatening to kill them if they left besieged rebel territory and effectively using them as human shields, while others blame army shelling for driving them out of their homes and killing their relatives and neighbours.
"People who have lost all their possessions in the tsunami are being forced out of their land and are being subjected to untold miseries. This is nothing less than ethnic genocide by the Sri Lankan state," Tamilselvan said.
More than 3,000 civilians, troops and rebel fighters have been killed so far this year in a series of ambushes, air raids, ground and naval battles and suicide bombings.
However the fighting has been largely confined to the north and east, and many fear an all-out return to a war that has killed more than 67,000 people since 1983 could spread throughout Sri Lanka and be catastrophic.
The Tigers, who accuse successive Sinhalese-majority governments of discriminating against minority Tamils, say they are intensifying their fight for an independent state in the north and east after President Mahinda Rajapaksa rejected their demands for a separate homeland.