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SRI LANKA: Fear Over the Country

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Jul 17 2006 (IPS) - A massive cutout of a soldier at a busy intersection in the Sri Lankan capital captures the nervous mood of a country on edge as a four-year-old ceasefire between the government and the formidable Tamil Tiger rebels rapidly fails.

A caption exhorts the cutout soldier not to fear and assures him that the nation is with him.For civilian passersby, the cutout and caption are reminders that they have once again become targets – ceasefire or not.

The Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tigers, both say that they continue to honour the ceasefire they agreed upon in February 2002 through Norwegian facilitation. Before the truce, more than 65,000 people had died in more than two decades of sectarian violence spearheaded by the Tigers who are leading the drive to carve out a separate Tamil state in the north and east of the Sinhala dominated island.

But the truce has been failing since the election in November of a pro-Sinhala government led by President Mahinda Rajapkase, that came to power opposing a plan for devolution of power. More than 700 people have died in ceasefire violations by both sides since December.

Attempts to get the negotiations back on track have failed and new dates have been set after a round of talks in Geneva in January. According to the all-Norwegian Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), that minds the ceasefire, out of the 700 people who died in the violations 450 were civilians. "Civilians continue to live in fear. There have been many instances in the recent past where civilians have been the target," SLMM spokesman Thorfinnur Omarsson said.

Death and injury are ever present. In one attack, on Jul. 3 in the northeastern harbour town of Trincomalee explosives hidden in a trishaw were set off near a newly setup military checkpoint just as people were lining up to pass through.

Six persons including one civilian were killed in the attack. Investigations revealed that the trishaw had been parked on the spot for over two hours and that the bomb had been set off using a remote-control device. The Tigers disclaimed responsibility.

On Jun. 15, 64 people died and 75 others were injured when the bus they were travelling in hit a claymore mine in north central Kepethigollawa. The once busy road, on which the attack took place, is now virtually deserted and a single bus trip, each day, serves the residents of the area.

The Tigers too have been complaining that Tamil civilians are being targeted by the government forces. In fact, the Tigers have set the cessation of all violence against Tamil civilians in the north and east as a precondition for the resumption of talks. "The responsibility lies on the government to halt forthwith all atrocities against Tamils by the security forces and paramilitary groups," Tiger political head S P Tamilselvan wrote, in a letter to Rajapakse.

With attacks mounting in Colombo, the military was forced to reintroduce strict security measures. Following the assassination of the army&#39s third in command Maj. Gen. Parami Kulathunga in a suicide attack on Jun. 26, the defence ministry said that security had been heightened to pre-truce levels.

Checkpoints have gone up at important entry points to the city and vehicles and persons entering and exiting Tiger-held areas are subjected to through frisking.

But the futility of these exercises was highlighted after a bomb-laden trishaw exploded at the checkpoint in Trincomalee, shortly after it was set up. "There is tension and anxiety when you see so much security in the city, but it has now become a necessity given all these attacks," Lakshmaindre Fernando, who represents a global computer brand in Sri Lanka, said.

Tension and fear have disrupted normal life on several occasions. Two weeks ago, panic spread all over the country after a rumour started that the Tigers were set to launch attacks on schools. Panic stricken parents rushed to schools fearing for the safety of their children. The government has now effected new security measures at schools that includes checking students with metal detectors.

Early this week, Immigration and Emigration Office in Colombo was evacuated after a bomb scare although a subsequent search revealed no suspicious objects. More than 1,000 persons who were in the building had to be moved out and the building cordoned off. Bomb scares have also been reported near the country&#39s main hospital and the headquarters of the National Savings Bank. "This is very bad for business, confidence is low, everything is moving at slow-motion from government departments to schools," Fernando said.

If security is tight in the capital, it is more so in the northern and eastern regions. House-to-house search operations and checking of pubic transport have once again become frequent in the northern Jaffna peninsula, the cultural heart of the Tamils. "We show our identity cards and then they (the Army) would search the whole house. They have not harassed anyone so far. Of course, we don&#39t like the army coming and checking houses. The people obviously feel uncomfortable about it and wonder what would happen next. But, we cannot blame them. They are doing their duty," S. Priya, a Tamil resident of Jaffna, said.

Those who cannot take the harassment and tension anymore have simply boarded fishing boats or whatever craft is available and fled across the Palk Straits to the coast of Tamil Nadu on the Indian mainland. More than 4,000 people have made the crossing since January, Indian officials said.

Colombo has directed the Sri Lankan navy to stop the exodus. Scores of civilians attempting to cross into Indian territorial waters have been caught and handed over to the police for violating emigration laws.

In Kilinochchi, the political centre of the Tamil Tigers, civilians have dug bunkers to protect themselves from aerial attacks. The government launched air strikes on suspected Tiger camps in retaliation for a failed assassination attempt on army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka in April.

All this has made most Sri Lankans feel that the country has drifted back to the days of unbridled violence. "We lived through this for 20 years, I guess it has become a part of life," Fernando said.

"We continue to dig bunkers despite the relatively calm situation. We&#39ll wait and see what happens. We are ready for anything," said V. Muruhan in Kilinochchi.

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