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COLOMBO, Jul 17 2007 (IPS) - As the government celebrates the capture of the country’s east, all out battles with Tamil rebels in their northern bastion of Jaffna have become imminent.
Five days after the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse announced that its troops had reached the last Tiger stronghold in the east, Toppiggala (Barron’s rock), over 25 combatants from both sides died in clashes along the northern line of control.
The fresh fighting signals what lies ahead. A Norwegian-facilitated ceasefire, signed in February 2002, is all but dead and recent efforts by the facilitators to renew dialogue have failed with aid agencies and the United Nations, expecting more violence.
Both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the main rebel organisation that has been fighting for separate Tamil homeland for three decades, have upped the war rhetoric. "We have been in preparation for an assault from the Vavuniya (northern) defence lines for the last six months," Tiger military spokesman Rasiah Illanthariyan told IPS. ‘’Every time troops have tried to come into our areas, we have beat them back."
The Tiger rhetoric matched that of the government which has said openly that it was shifting military attention to the north. The Rajapakse government is planning a massive public programme to celebrate the victory in the east and citizens have been asked to hoist the national flag. Posters have already appeared countrywide praising the troops.
Rajapakse himself informed Norwegian peace facilitator Erik Solheim that operations by the security forces would stop only when Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran halts attacks on government troops and targets.
Even as government announced plans to hold local elections in the eastern region the LTTE has warned that it will continue to attack oil and military installations. On Monday, suspected LTTE gunmen shot dead Herath Abeyweera, chief secretary of the Eastern Province in Trincomalee harbour.
''The assassination strengthens our resolve not to give in to the forces of terror,'' Rajapakse said in a statement vowing that his government will proceed with ‘’our task of restoring freedom and democracy in the east, and all of Sri Lanka’’.
"Let them come here, we are ready," Illanthariyan said of a possible troop advance into the north. ‘’We have switched modes, but we are active as always." The Tigers have been putting up stiff resistance in the north.
In mid-July, two days of fighting left 14 government soldiers and scores of Tiger cadres dead. "The Tigers fired at troops and we had to retaliate, we have taken out their gun positions," military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said.
The latest fighting controverts hyped up reporting in the local media of a possible thawing in the relationship between Colombo and Kilinochchi. Reports in early July said that the government had once again invited Norway to revive talks. The Norwegians facilitated a truce in 2002 that still holds, but is limited to paper.
That truce did halt over two decades of fighting that had killed 65,000 till violence erupted again in December 2005. In the ensuing 30 months 4,500 have been killed, including 1,500 civilians. The U.N. estimates that recent fighting had forced 500,000 people out of their homes and affected three million Sri Lankans.
The Norwegians themselves have downplayed any peace hopes and said that the latest visit by outgoing ambassador Hans Bratskkar to Kilinochchi was a courtesy call, coupled with briefings for the Tigers on concerns on the part of international backers of the truce. "There are no trips by the special peace envoy planned for any time soon," embassy spokesman Erik Nurenberg said after the trip.
Illanthariyan, part of the Tiger delegation to the meetings, told IPS that there were no discussions on renewing dialogue. The Tigers also stuck to their hardline stance that conditions embedded in the truce have to be fulfilled for dialogue to recommence.
The truce, which recognised a Tamil homeland, facilitated economic growth and international donors, led by the United States, Japan, the European Union and Norway stepped in.
On top of the Tiger agenda is the reopening of the A9 highway that runs through Tiger-held areas. "Conditions in the truce like the opening of the A9 have to be implemented for any talks to recommence, the government is talking peace and launching attacks," the Tiger spokesman said. The government closed the highway in August 2006.
The rhetoric and the posturing in the north have led observers to warn that the climate may deteriorate further in the coming months. "The peace process remains stymied in the first half of 2007. Open hostilities continue to flare up frequently. Terrorist acts and general violence such as ambushes, mine attacks, abductions and targeted killings further intensify," the Common Action Plan Review report put out by the office of the U.N. Humanitarian Affairs Coordinator said, adding "artillery shelling, aerial bombings and claymore mines cause civilian casualties and damage to property, disrupting the lives of thousands. Forced recruitment of youth and children to replenish lost cadres persists."
The U.N. report told donors that the same trend was likely to continue in the latter half of the year as well. And local observers also feel that unless there is a major shift in the mindset of the government and the Tigers, violence is the only way to go. "We need a change in the thinking, we need words to be matched by action, otherwise, the same trend will hold," Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, a pro-peace local lobby group, said.
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