Closing door for peace talks in Sri Lanka

Despite the deaths of more than 40 Sri Lankan military personnel, the government has been reluctant to retaliate.

Escalating violence in Sri Lanka involving government forces and separatist rebels has raised fears that the island could return to civil war. International pressure is intensifying for immediate peace talks.

At least 40 Sri Lankan Army and Navy personnel have been killed so far this month - including 10 Tuesday - in attacks blamed on the Tamil Tiger rebels, who seek an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils and control territory in the island's north and east.

The recent violence is the worst in Sri Lanka since a fragile cease-fire instituted in 2002 largely quelled a bloody 20-year civil war that cost over 64,000 lives. The cease-fire gave rise to a peace process that stalled in 2003. Early optimism this year that the tsunami would reinvigorate the peace talks faded after disagreements over aid sharing and the Nov. 17 election of a new president with hard-line allies.

Although analysts say the cease-fire has effectively been broken, the country is not yet at civil war and Sri Lanka's armed forces have not retaliated to every Tiger attack. The reluctance to abandon the agreement leaves open the chance for peace talks to resume.

"One thing is pretty certain - both sides will really hesitate to call off the cease-fire formally," says Charu Hogg, an associate fellow of the Asia programme at Chatham House, an international affairs thinktank in London. On Friday the government said it would show restraint even though its patience was "wearing thin."

The formal cease-fire agreement has value to both sides as one of the few remaining points of common ground. Its demise, says Colombo-based political analyst Rohan Edrisinha, "would create a tremendous vacuum."

The election of President Mahinda Rajapakse, who rejects the rebels' key demand for an independent homeland, has widened the gap between the two sides. The Tigers say the Tamils need a homeland because they are discriminated against by Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese community.

The past round of talks focused on federalism - giving the Tamils some autonomy within their region - as a possible compromise solution. The talks ignited a power struggle within the Sri Lankan government after the former president said the negotiators had ceded too much to the rebels. The rebels ultimately backed out of the talks, perhaps, say analysts, because of disquiet over selling out independence.

Mr. Rajapakse's public comments suggest that he, too, will be reluctant to give the Tamils a level of autonomy that could threaten the unity of the state - a stance that has angered the Tigers. After the presidential election, Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers' leader, threatened a return to war if no political settlement emerged within the next year.

"The Tigers are reminding Sri Lanka's new president of their military capability," says Mr. Edrisinha. "They're telling the president not to be unrealistic in his dealings with them."

On Saturday, a delegation representing the four co-chairs - the European Union, Japan, Norway, and the US - of a 2003 conference that promised $4.5 billion in aid to Sri Lanka tied to progress in peace talks, visited the Tigers' stronghold after calling for an "immediate end" to violence.

"Failure to demonstrate a willingness to change would not be without serious consequences," the co-chairs said in a statement issued earlier in Brussels, without specifying those consequences. The co-chairs also urged the Sri Lankan government to ensure "paramilitary groups" ceased their activities.

Both Rajapakse and the Tigers have said they are prepared to negotiate towards peace.

Rajapakse invited Norway to continue as peace mediator, after throwing doubt on its role during his presidential election campaign. He wants regional power India to play a bigger role in Sri Lanka's peace track too and is now visiting New Delhi. However, few see India wanting to get more deeply involved.

The Tigers welcomed the invitation extended to Norway, but they want to hold talks in Oslo while Mr. Rajapakse prefers Asia. The two sides have yet to agree on a venue.

Norway has insisted both the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government meet certain publicly unspecified conditions before it accepts Rajapakse's invitation to continue as mediator.

"Norway wants both sides to be committed to the cease-fire," says Jehan Perera, a director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka in Colombo. "Apart from that, I think Norway wants the government to give an assurance that certain of its coalition allies, which have been publicly denouncing the Norwegians, will be restrained from doing so."

Perera thinks the coalition allies will eventually give their approval, at which point the "government will be able to say they are ready and committed to starting the talks, and that it will do everything possible on its side to see that there are no incidents of violence."

However, analysts say the situation is extremely volatile given the rise in violence and the wide gap between the two sides' stated positions on the Tigers' desire for an independent homeland.

Edrisinha says the Tigers may want greater independence than is implied by federalism. "In order to achieve that, the Tigers probably want some more military success," he says. "There might be a brief period of fighting before any possibility of negotiations resurfaces. Hopefully the fighting, though it may be intense, will be short-lived."

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