Bouts of happiness spread across the country during the annual Sinhala and Tamil New Year festivities when Tiger rebels agreed to the peace talks on April 24 in Geneva. That joy was short-lived when the transportation of senior eastern rebel military commanders to LTTE-held areas in the north for a conference to discuss strategy for the Geneva meeting was angrily called off by the rebels last Saturday in protest over the presence of navy attack craft. This worsened to a continuation of attacks on government forces with eight soldiers dying in mine blasts in the north.

For President Mahinda Rajapakse it was a busy week. Unlike most leaders like former PM and now Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who spend their New Year holiday also in Nuwara Eliya or abroad to escape the scorching April heat in the capital, Rajapakse celebrated his first Sinhala New Year after winning last November’s presidential poll at his ancestral home in Weeraketiya in southern Hambantota.

With many things and issues on his plate, Rajapakse must have been happy when the rebels agreed in the early part of the week to return to the negotiating table, though later on April 24 than the earlier scheduled April 19. Despite this the orgy of violence continued during the week mainly in the eastern port town of Trincomalee where a night curfew has been in force for the past four days. More than 45 people, mostly soldiers, died in suspected rebel attacks by triggering claymore mines on military convoys or military buses during the past week.

There was some hint of the violence easing as the LTTE prepared to transport their eastern commanders to the north for a series of briefings ahead of the Geneva talks. But that exercise also failed when the Tigers called off last Saturday’s sea transport mission on a civilian boat accompanied by Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) monitors when gunboats were spotted in the distance as the rebels boarded the vessel.

The rebels and the government exchanged angry notes accusing the other of reneging on the SLMM-backed deal. The rebels said there was no agreement for the navy to accompany the civilian boat while the government rejected the claim saying it was clearly in the agreement that the navy would escort the civilian boat from a distance.

The SLMM accused both sides of making a mountain out of a molehill when large issues were at stake. Last Saturday’s incident further widened the gulf between the two sides and certainly postponed peace talks for a third time. The April 24 date for peace talks is expected to see yet another postponement since the meeting between the eastern commanders and the northern hierarchy led by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was a must before the Geneva parlay, and will remain so.

Thus when Rajapakse administered the oath of office to dozens of recently elected mayors, deputy mayors, chairmen and deputy chairmen on last Sunday, foremost on his mind would have been ways of bringing the rebels back to the negotiating table, stopping the orgy of violence and yet show that his tactics are now seen as giving into LTTE pressure.

Samath, a freelancer, wri-tes for THT from Colombo