For four years, India sheltered Tamil separatists fighting the government of neighbouring Sri Lanka. Today, the guerrillas and their former protector seem poised for confrontation.
A week of spiralling violence threatens the delicate peace pact signed in August by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene. What were once heady hopes for peace have become fears of a widening ethnic conflict in this tiny island nation.
Renewed attacks by Tamil militants against Sri Lankan soldiers and civilians have brought tough new warnings from India. With almost 200 dead this week in resurging ethnic strife, India has pledged to use full force to restore peace.
``India has been pushed by the intransigence of the militants into increasingly tougher responses,'' says an Asian diplomat in the capital of Colombo. ``It's now reached the point where India will have to make a stand.''
Following the peace agreement, India stationed its army to police the peace in the north and east provinces where Tamil insurgents want to create their own homeland.
The Tamils, a predominantly Hindu minority comprising 12.5 percent of the country's 16 million people, have been fighting for self-rule, claiming discrimination by the majority Buddhist Sinhalese. More than 6,000 people have died in the four-year civil war which Tamil leaders conducted from their refuge in south India.
However, 11,000 Indian troops in northeastern Sri Lanka have not not been able to enforce the peace accord which was accepted reluctantly by the main Tamil group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. India pledged to disarm the Tamil militants if the Sri Lanka government granted limited autonomy in the north and east regions of the country.
However, the Tamils refuse to surrender their weapons. And the power leader of the Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has insisted on dominating both the north where the Tamils are in majority and the east which the Tamils share with the Sinhalese and a small Muslim minority. The militants have rejected a plan to hold a referendum in the east to decide if it should be united with the north.
This week, the militants called an end to the truce and unleashed a new wave of terror. On Monday, 12 tiger militants committed mass suicide by swallowing cyanide pills after their arrest for attempting to smuggle arms into the norhtern city of Jaffna.
In retaliation for the deaths, the group killed 13 people, including eight Sri Lankan soldiers on Tuesday and more than 160 people in widespread slaughters on Wednesday. The militants went on a shooting spree in several villages and murdered bus and train passengers along the eastern coast.
The Indian peace-keeping force is under mounting pressure to stop the militants' attacks and curb ethnic clashes between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in the strategic east coast port of Trincomalee.
President Jayawardene faced bitter opposition from the Sinhalese after signing the peace accord with Mr. Gandhi. At least 70 people were killed in rioting by Sinhalese mobs in Colombo.
In September, Jayewardene survived an assassination attempt when Sinhalese extremists threw granades into a meeting of government leaders in the Sri Lankan parliament. Two people were killed and five cabinet ministers were wounded.
This week, the Indian and Sri Lankan governments announced new measures to bring the situation under control.
Officials imposed shoot- on-sight orders for those involved in violence and briefed up the security forces. However, the actions were not not able to stop new attacks Thursday when land mines exploded, killing nine Sri Lanka soldiers, including a regional military commander.
``Sufficient time has been given to the militants to fall in line,'' commented a Sri Lankan government spokesman. ``But still they have refused.''