COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – Just days after a defiant air attack here, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has proposed a cease-fire in the north of the island where its fighters are boxed in by a military advance. In a statement, the separatist group called on the US and other international donors to press the Sri Lankan government to stop fighting and seek a political solution to the 26-year-old conflict.
But the cease-fire offer fell well short of the unconditional surrender sought by the government, which swiftly rejected the LTTE's appeal. It also seems unlikely to sway the hardening stance among Sri Lanka’s allies that the war has reached a decisive point that requires the losing party to lay down arms before any political deal emerges.
In recent weeks, international calls for a halt to hostilities in the north, where at least 70,000 civilians are still trapped by fighting, have given way to pressure on the LTTE to let non-combatants go. The Red Cross has evacuated thousands of wounded civilians and has warned of dire conditions for those trapped behind. The UN says the LTTE is forcibly recruiting children into its ranks.
On Friday, two LTTE aircraft came down in Colombo in what the military says was a thwarted suicide mission against two air force bases. Monday’s statement made no reference to the air strike but claimed that the protection of Tamils is “dependent on the arms of the LTTE.” It condemned the international community for applauding “genocidal attacks” on Tamils. Exiled Tamil groups in Europe have staged protest rallies recently and voiced similar claims.
International relief agencies trying to help those fleeing from the battlefield and into military-controlled refugee camps appear reluctant to criticize Sri Lanka's all-out push for victory, despite claims of rising casulties. Many in the government here are openly dismissive of foreign NGOs working in war-torn areas and accuse some of siding with the LTTE in the past, particularly in reconstruction projects after the 2004 Asian tsunami that ravaged the eastern coastline.
“The government has said no cease-fire until the LTTE surrenders. Humanitarian actors don’t want to be accused of politically interfering, lest it undermines the humanitarian work that they could do,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo.
Government officials say previous peace talks always collapsed because the LTTE won’t compromise its demand for an independent Tamil mini-state. Since 2005, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has rallied the Sinhalese majority behind a military offensive to crush the LTTE, which draws support from minority Tamils.
The group began fighting for independence in 1983 and has defied several past attempts to defeat its armed wing. But few expect a turnaround in the current round of fighting which has already drastically shrunk the territory controlled by the LTTE’s remaining fighters.