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Geneva II in danger of being cancelled

With violence spiralling in Sri Lanka, chances of the April 19 talks in Geneva look bleak, reports PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Apr 12, 2006 18:07 IST

There is just a week to go for the second round of peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE in Geneva.

But till date, it is not certain that the talks will be held.

In fact, it will not be an exaggeration to say that Geneva II is in danger of being cancelled.

Well-informed Tamil journalists have cancelled their plans to go to Geneva to cover the talks.

The reasons for the uncertainty are: An unresolved issue relating to the transport of senior LTTE commanders and a spurt in LTTE violence in the past few days.

On Wednesday, Kuchchaveli in Trincomalee district saw a mine blast in which two policemen were killed.

There were at least four bombs in the town of Trincomalee itself, spreading civil panic.

Transport, a serious issue

It is the issue of providing transport to the LTTE's Eastern commanders, which is seriously threatening Geneva II.

Tamil sources say that at stake is the peace process itself.

They say that the LTTE may engineer a military confrontation in the sea in the next few days, which could lead to a full-scale war.

The sources recall how, in 1987, the LTTE created a tense situation in Palaly airport in Jaffna, which led to the two and half year war with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).

It was the engineered suicide of senior LTTE commanders Kumarappa and Pulendran, which led to the epoch making confrontation.

Lankan government aware of LTTE ploy

However, the Sri Lankan government is acutely aware of the LTTE's ploy and is determined not to fall into the neatly laid trap.

The government's official spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwelle, told the media here on Monday, that the government, and indeed all the political parties in the country, were keen on Geneva II, despite the LTTE's recent provocative acts.

Rambukwelle said that though the government's tolerance limit had been reached, the limit could be extended, depending on political developments.

Though the LTTE had seriously violated the CFA several times and seriously, government viewed these as "hiccups" normal in any conflict resolution process, he said.

The government was in touch with the diplomatic community on this matter, Rambukwelle said.

Colombo expects international pressure to be mounted on the LTTE at this critical juncture.

Rambukwelle said that in sharp contrast to the belligerent stance of the LTTE, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, backed by all the political parties, was keen on the talks being held.

Even the hard line political parties had come round to accepting this position, he said.

LTTE's case

The LTTE had sent word through the Norwegian facilitators, that it would not be able to go for the talks, if the government did not allow its Eastern commanders to travel by sea "in their own boats with their own security", from the East to the North, for pre-Geneva consultations with the leadership.

But on Monday, the government clearly indicated that it could not agree to this demand.

Spokesman Rambukwelle said that the government's proposal to take the LTTE commanders by sea in a Sri Lankan naval ship, was the best and the most secure arrangement for them.

Earlier, the LTTE had asked for air transport, but this was rejected by the government.

Why the LTTE asked for air transport

The LTTE had asked for air transport on the grounds that, from the time the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was signed in February 2002, its commanders and senior cadres had been provided air transport when they had to move between the Northern and Eastern Sectors over government-held territory.

Sri Lankan Air Force choppers had flown the cadres from one sector to another without a fuss.

Air transport was agreed upon because road transport was risky.

There was no land link between the LTTE-controlled areas in the North and those in the East.

The cadres had to pass through vast stretches of government-held territory where their enemies might be lurking.

There was of course, a sea link. But the CFA had disallowed LTTE movement in the sea.

The CFA had given the Sri Lankan navy full authority over the sea. Any unauthorised movement in the sea by the LTTE could be deemed a CFA violation and the navy could take punitive action.

Govt had rejected LTTE demand for exclusive sea lane

Earlier on, the LTTE had asked the Sri Lankan government to allow a sea lane for it to avoid confrontations in the sea. And the Scandinavian truce monitors were supportive of the idea.

But the Sri Lankan government and the armed forces opposed it tooth and nail.

Colombo, which was already viewing the CFA as an abridgement of its sovereign rights, felt that any concession in regard to the sea would mean a further erosion of its sovereignty.

When power in Colombo went into the hands of hard liners in 2004, opposition to the chopper rides mounted.

The government suddenly said that it was under no obligation to give air transport for the militants' inter-sector movements. This was not in the CFA it said.

Geneva II helps rake up old issue

The scheduled meeting of the LTTE's Central Committee to be held in Kilinochchi in the Northern sector prior to Geneva II, provided the militant group an opportunity to rake up the issue of transport and the sea lane.

The current position of the LTTE is that if the government does not restore air transport, it will ask its Eastern commanders to come by sea, in their own vessels and with their own Sea Tiger security.

Tamil sources say that the LTTE expects the government to disallow this because it is an infringement of the Sri Lanka Navy's sovereign right to control movements in the sea off the island's coastline.

The navy could intercept the LTTE's flotilla, precipitating a fight.

But the confrontation would be such that the LTTE would not be seen as starting the fight and violating the CFA first, the sources said.

The LTTE would be prepared to lose some of its senior commanders in the skirmish.

Tamil sources said that such loses would be played up used as an excuse to go for a sharp and swift military operation to demoralize the Sri Lankan state.

The LTTE would simultaneously try and convince the international community that the Sri Lankan government had been unfair on the transport and sea lane issues, and that the confrontation was called for, the sources said.

First Published: Apr 12, 2006 16:57 IST