Truce Deteriorates in Sri Lanka

The two sides in the Sri Lanka conflict are to meet next month in Geneva. The government in Colombo and the Tamil Tiger guerrillas will be attempting to salvage a ceasefire that has threatened to unravel with almost daily assassinations and bombings.

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The two sides in the Sri Lanka conflict are to meet next week or next month in Geneva. Sri Lanka's government will be attempting to salvage a ceasefire with the Tamil Tiger gorillas; a ceasefire which has threatened to unravel amidst almost a daily assassinations and bombings.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, reporting: Sri Lankans don't agree on much but on this they seem unanimous. This has been the bloodiest period since the government and the Tamil Tigers negotiated a ceasefire in 2002. In the last two months at least 140 people have been killed, including many civilians.

A year after the devastating tsunami, Sri Lanka has seem to be sliding back to war; a war that's already claimed some 60,000 lives since the early 80s.

Helen Olafsdottir is spokesperson for the international mission, which monitors the ceasefire.

Ms. HELEN OLAFSDOTTIR (Spokesperson, Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission): The escalation is so incredible in the month of December; we've never seen anything like it. And it seems to be carrying on over to the month of January with so many people being killed. So it is really bad situation.

REEVES: The ceasefire has often been violated in the past, but Olafsdottir says recent attacks have involved the use of claymore mines and much more indiscriminate.

Ms. OLAFSDOTTIR: Which means a lot of civilians are being caught in the middle. So they're less targeted, like they were assassination stars. But now, more people are getting dragged into it. And the operations, or the explosions are bigger.

REEVES: The worsening picture has caused alarm well beyond the island's shores. This week, the U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns paid Sri Lanka a visit. He condemned the Tamil Tigers for what he calls "terrorism" and called on them to stop their violent activities. Yet he also acknowledged that the Tamil population has legitimate grievances and he urged the Sri Lanka government to investigate allegations that its military has committed abuses against Tamils.

Yesterday, the international effort to save Sri Lanka from more war stepped up a gear. The Norwegian peace envoy Eric Solheim, a key player in achieving the 2002 ceasefire, flew into Tiger held territory to meet the gorillas' reclusive leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran. Solheim emerged with an agreement from the Tigers for talks in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Sri Lankan government described this as a major breakthrough, but analysts Rohan Edirisinha, director of the Center Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka, struck a more cautious note.

Mr. ROHAN EDIRISINHA (Director, The Center Policy Alternatives): it's important to note that the agreement is to talk about securing the ceasefire agreement. So the agenda at the talks, which are going to be held in Geneva, will be very limited; limited to the ceasefire agreement, which is in serious jeopardy. Some people, in fact, argue that there is no ceasefire agreement. And I think there will be some very difficult issues that will have to be resolved.

REEVES: The most difficult issue of all is the gulf in the Tamil Tigers' core demand for autonomy in the north and east, and the Sri Lankan government's position. Sri Lanka's recently elected President Mahinda Rajapaksa is allied with some hard-line elements from the island's Sinhalese majority. Like previous Sri Lankan leaders he said he won't accept the island's division. Talks could easily breakdown with a fresh outburst of violence.

Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper in Sri Lanka, says the consequences of this could be severe.

Mr. LASANTHA WICKREMATUNGE (Editor, Sunday Leader): Then the country is looking a long, drawn-out battle, not only in the north and the east of all that will be brought to the city. There will economic diversification in the country, tourism will grind to a halt, investment will dry up, cost of living will be soaring through the skies, the arms merchants move in for the kill and the country is basically going to be looking down the barrel.

REEVES: The talks on reviving the ceasefire are expected to be held next month. This will be a relief to aid agencies who've been working to rebuild Sri Lanka's coastal communities after last year's tsunami. Before yesterday's agreement for talks, the fear of a return to conflict have begun to eclipse the rebuilding effort.

But much will hinge on whether violence now tails off. An atmosphere of deep suspicion has built up, partly fueled by reports of severe abuses by Tamil paramilitary opposed to the Tigers and by government forces. Only after Tamil Tigers agreed to talks, one civilian, reportedly a Tamil, was shot dead in the island's east.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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