Sri Lankan adversaries dig in heels as Gandhi tries to save talks

Hopes for a peaceful solution to Sri Lanka's civil strife are giving way to fears of renewed violence on this tiny island. The recent collapse of talks between government officials and Tamil separatist leaders has caused concern among Sri Lankans.

Even as Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi intensified efforts to salvage the peace talks, Sri Lankan President Junius R. Jayewardene declared that his government would not compromise with Tamil militants who commit terrorist acts. ``If it is peace, it is peace. If it is war, it is war,'' Mr. Jayewardene warned Sunday.

The talks, sponsored by India, were being held in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. They broke down on Aug. 17, reportedly because of a resurgence of violence and the irreconcilable positions of the two parties.

In his first major attempt to resolve one of the region's most critical problems, Mr. Gandhi has played an increasingly vital role in laying the groundwork for dialogue between the two sides. When talks collapsed, he quickly invited both sides to New Delhi for discussions aimed at a resumption of talks.

On Saturday, Indian authorities deported two Tamil separatist leaders based in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. This was seen as a warning to other militant leaders who opposed a resumption of peace talks. News reports from New Delhi say that consultation between Sri Lankan and Indian officials are continuing in the Indian capital. There are also reports that some Tamil leaders may go to New Delhi for discussions with the Indians on the possible resumption of talks.

Several Tamil groups, demanding greater political autonomy, have been waging a virtual civil war in the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, where most of the country's 2.6 million Hindu Tamils live. Sri Lankan officials say that the Tamil guerrillas are receiving support from many Indian Tamils in their war against the 11-million-strong Buddhist Sinhalese majority. Some 50 million Tamils live in Tamil Nadu.

Political observers here say chances for a peaceful negotiated settlement are very slim, notwithstanding the personal mediation of Gandhi. They say that the Sri Lankan government is unwilling to budge from its stance against Tamil demands for a separate state nor is it willing to offer anything more than a devolution of power to the district council level which the Tamils have rejected.

Earlier, Tamils had implied that a semi-autonomous Tamil province in Tamil strongholds might be an acceptable basis for an eventual solution. Tamils also want recognition of Tamil as an official language, an end to Sinhalese settlement of Tamil areas, and changes in the Sri Lankan Army to reflect the ethnic constituencies.

Analysts here fear that recent developments might catapult the country into disaster. They cite President Jayewardene's increasing inability to control the political situation, which has been marked by sporadic Army rampages against Tamils in the countryside as well as widespread Tamil terrorist acts.

According to sources, Sinhalese-Buddhist hard-liners are organizing a national front to protect the interests of the Sinhalese majority. Among them are former Premier Srimavo Bandaranaike and her son Anura Bandaranaike, who lead the opposition Sri Lankan Freedom Party. More ominous, however, is that ``for the first time, the President himself is talking about an outright war,'' an observer said.

On Monday, Jayewardene said in a speech that ``in times of war, laws are silent,'' and that Sri Lanka is prepared to wage a war against the Tamil separatists ``at whatever costs to the government.''

India's role in mediation is seen as a last resort, but observers here are pessimistic about Gandhi's last-minute maneuvers. Gandhi now faces mounting opposition within India, where opposition Tamil groups in Tamil Nadu have called for rallies to protest Saturday's deportation of two Sri Lankan separatist leaders.

As one analyst says: ``Rajiv is doing his best . . . . . But he can only pressure both sides up to a point.''

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