Sri Lanka truce barely surviving bombs, slayings

The island nation said it was committed to upholding the strained ceasefire even as five more people were killed in mine attack.

india Updated: May 01, 2006 15:15 IST

At least 200 people have been killed in the bloodiest month since peace broker Norway arranged a truce four years ago but Sri Lanka's warring parties say their ceasefire is still holding -- just.

Sri Lanka on Monday said it was committed to upholding the hugely strained ceasefire even as five more people were killed in the island's northeast in a Claymore mine attack authorities blamed on Tamil Tiger rebels.

"The government is still committed to the ceasefire agreement and the Tigers too have said they are committed," the government's top official handling the Norwegian-backed peace effort, Palitha Kohona, told the agency.

"But, we are going through certain hiccups at the moment."

Until the end of February, Scandinavian truce monitors have held the Tigers responsible for 3,535 violations and blamed the government for 169 breaches.

A string of bomb attacks last month claimed more than 100 lives while another 100 people have been killed in other incidents over the same period.

Those deaths followed a round of violence that killed at least 154 people between December and January, and which led the two sides to hold talks in Switzerland in February in an effort to save the truce.

The lowest point in the ceasefire came last year when Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was assassinated in August by suspected Tiger gunmen.

The European Union slapped travel restrictions on the Tigers after that attack, but the Sri Lankan government did not retaliate.

Last week was different. Following an audacious suicide bomb attack against army chief Sarath Fonseka last Tuesday the government hit back with air strikes. At least 15 civilians died.

"What we need to do is to give the Tigers an ultimatum," said Udaya Gammanpila, a leader of the national Heritage Party closely allied with the ruling coalition of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

"We must follow Israel. For every suicide bombing, there must be retaliatory strikes," Gammanpila said. "We must give notice of pulling out of the ceasefire unless the Tigers honour pledges not to use violence."

Scandinavians monitoring the ceasefire ruled on Saturday that Colombo had violated the truce by carrying out retaliatory strikes despite the authorities maintaining they were acting in self-defence.

"The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission would like to urge the government of Sri Lanka to refrain from such operations as they can jeopardise the ceasefire further," the monitors said in a statement.

While air strikes, artillery fire, mortar attacks, suicide bombings in the heart of Colombo appear to be signs of deteriorating security, they could also encourage the parties to come to the table, observers said.

Retired army brigadier general Vipul Boteju said Rajapaksa had little choice but to order limited air strikes after last week's suicide bombing inside the army headquarters, but the parties could also be moving towards talks.

"Both sides have demonstrated their strengths. So they can save face and sit round at a table and tell their constituencies that they are speaking from a position of strength," Boteju said.

Retired air force chief Harry Gunatillake agrees the two sides could also be heading for talks while escalating attacks against each other.

"The ceasefire is holding, at least on paper," Gunatillake said. "This is still better than all out war. Talks about talks are also better than nothing at all."

The Tiger political wing chief SP Tamilselvan last week accused the government of "openly declaring war" and accused the international community of not criticising the authorities over the air strikes.

"We hope the international community clearly understands that the government of Sri Lanka is trying to destroy the ceasefire created with the support of the international community and drag the Tamil people and the LTTE into a war," he said.

First Published: May 01, 2006 15:15 IST