Delay in Lanka talks deepens crisis

As the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels quibble over where and when to hold peace talks, a massive humanitarian crisis is building up in the Jaffna peninsula where half a million people are short of food and fuel and where bombing raids by the air force have been continuing for the fourth day, last Friday. The ‘A9’ arterial road connecting the peninsula to the rest of the country has remained virtually cut off since fighting erupted between government forces and the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on August 11. Supply lines, including air and sea transport, have been disrupted and international agencies such as the Red Cross have stopped accompanying government convoys, citing security reasons.

While the government, under pressure from an international donors’ group, announced last Wednesday readiness to resume talks with the LTTE from October 28-30, the two sides are yet to agree on where in Europe the meeting would be held. The LTTE favours Oslo while the government prefers a venue in Switzerland. Meanwhile, the government has kept up military pressure on the LTTE by bombing its positions in Jaffna and exchanging artillery fire. Except on paper, the fighting has ended a February 2002 ceasefire between the two sides brokered by Norway. Heavy fighting was also reported last Friday from Mankerni town in the eastern district of Batticaloa, threatening to cut supplies to some 34,000 refugees camping in the area ever since they lost their homes following pitched battles between the LTTE and the army in August. The ceasefire, aimed at ending three decades of violence between the Sinhalese majority and the minority ethnic Tamils, has been under strain ever since parallel negotiations abruptly ended in April 2003. “No citizen of Sri Lanka should be forced to depend on uncertainties, such as if a ship will arrive in the coming weeks or not,” the head of the Nordic peace monitors in Sri Lanka, Lars Solvberg, said earlier this week.

Aid workers have been deterred by the fact that the fighting has not spared them. On August 5, 17 aid workers from Action Internationale Contre la Faim (ACF) were lined up and shot dead in and around their office in Muttur town. Last Wednesday, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) expressed concern that the Sri Lankan government has refused to allow its official representative to enter the country and observe an inquest into the slaying of the aid workers.

“It is regrettable that the government has chosen not to allow our independent international observer to attend this vital inquest,” said Nicholas Howen, secretary-general of the ICJ. “At a time when the (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions have warned that investigations and accountability mechanisms have failed to bring justice to victims in Sri Lanka, it is particularly important for the government to demonstrate that every stage of its processes, including inquests and trials, are open, transparent and credible.”

Hopes for resumption of regular supplies are now being pinned on the late October meeting. The LTTE’s political wing leader SP Tamilselvan has said in a statement that if the talks fail it could mean all-out war and that the violence could spill into the Sinhala-dominated south. — IPS