Violence has surged in Sri Lanka following the government's decision at the beginning of the year to declare null and void the 2001 cease-fire with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), sending an ominous sign about the level of violence the country may confront this year.
The Tamil Tigers said Tuesday that some dozen children were also killed when their school bus was ambushed by government troops. A pro-rebel website, tamilnet.com, said that a "Deep Penetrating Unit" of the Sri Lankan Army carried out the mine attack against the bus.
The military denied involvement. "Whatever has happened, the LTTE is responsible for it. The Sri Lankan Army will never resort to an act such as targeting school-children," said an Army spokesperson.
"It had been widely predicted that '2008 would be the year of war for Sri Lanka.' The current escalation of violence since 1 January supports those fears."
"Sri Lanka's air force bombed Tamil Tiger positions in the far north while ground battles killed 14 rebels and a government soldier on Monday, taking the death toll in three days of fighting to 94, the military said."
The violence signals the official collapse of a 2001 Norwegian brokered cease-fire. Fighting had picked up again in 2005, leaving more than 5,000 dead and internally displacing 200,000 people in two years.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued an appeal, saying that the United Nations Security Council should intervene in the deteriorating situation. The rights' groups criticized the conduct of both rebel and government forces.
"With the resumption of heavy fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government forces, deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians are taking place in violation of international humanitarian law. With these escalating threats to the safety of civilians, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are calling on the Human Rights Council to take action by demanding that the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE improve the protection of civilians."
While the government has been moving more assertively to end the fight, Reuters reports that a government victory was neither close, nor inevitable.
"While the government has had the upper hand in recent months, killing senior rebel figures including the Tigers' political wing leader and military intelligence chief, military analysts say the rebels have retained their strike capability and see no clear winner on the horizon."
The LTTE, which wants an independent state in the north and east of the country, has killed numerous Sri Lankan politicians, including the Nation Building Minister D.M. Dassanayake in January of this year, and US and European governments label them a terrorist organization. According to the Council of Foreign Relations:
"Since the late 1980s, the group has conducted some 200 suicide bombings – far more than any other terrorist group. LTTE suicide bombers have attacked civilians on mass transit, at Buddhist shrines, and in office buildings."
International powers have long played a mediating role in the conflict – particularly neighboring India, which has a Tamil state. (The extent of the country's involvement can be measured by the May 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber, reports the BBC.) Indian leaders have been disheartened by the recent military escalation, reports the BBC.
"The government's decision to abrogate the ceasefire agreement has disappointed major international powers, including neighbouring India.
"We strongly believe that there is no military solution to the issue," an Indian government spokesman said after the Sri Lankan government's announcement on terminating the ceasefire."
"With the Sri Lankan military stepping up its offensive against the Tamil Tigers, a senior pro-LTTE leader has asked New Delhi to assume greater responsibility in resolving the ethnic conflict in the Island nation.
"India must play a role. India is a country very close to all of us... close to Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims alike. We all came from there," Tamil National Alliance parliamentary party leader [Rajavayothi] Sampanthan said."