TOPICS : Sri Lanka: Civil war shifts to Jaffna

As the government celebrates the capture of the country’s east, all out battles with Tamil rebels in their northern bastion of Jaffna have become imminent. Five days after the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse announced that its troops had reached the last Tiger stronghold in the east, Toppiggala (Barron’s rock), over 25 combatants from both sides died in clashes along the northern line of control. The fresh fighting signals what lies ahead. A Norwegian-facilitated ceasefire, signed in February 2002, is all but dead and recent efforts by the facilitators to renew dialogue have failed with aid agencies and the UN, expecting more violence.

Both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the main rebel organisation that has been fighting for separate Tamil homeland for three decades, have upped the war rhetoric. “We have been in preparation for an assault from the Vavuniya (northern) defence lines for the last six months,” Tiger spokesman Rasiah Illanthariyan said. “Every time troops have tried to come into our areas, we have beaten them back.”

The Tiger rhetoric matched that of the government which has said openly that it was shifting military attention to the north. The Rajapakse government is planning a massive public programme to celebrate the victory in the east and citizens have been asked

to hoist the national flag. Posters have already appeared countrywide praising the troops.

Rajapakse himself informed Norwegian peace facilitator Erik Solheim that operations by the security forces would stop only when Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran halts attacks on government troops and targets. “We were compelled to launch operations when they attacked troops in Mawilaru and Muttur,” Rajapakse said, referring to the initial breakout of fighting in August 2006, south of the strategic eastern Trincomalee harbour.

The rhetoric and the posturing in the north have led observers to warn that the climate may deteriorate further in the coming months. “The peace process remains stymied in the first half of 2007. Open hostilities continue to flare up frequently. Terrorist acts and general violence such as ambushes, mine attacks, abductions and targeted killings further intensify,” the Common Action Plan Review report put out by the office of the UN Humanitarian Affairs Coordinator said, adding “artillery shelling, aerial bombings and claymore mines cause civilian casualties and damage to property, disrupting the lives of thousands. Forced recruitment of youth and children to replenish lost cadres persists.”

The UN report told donors that the same trend was likely to continue in the latter half of the year as well. And local observers also feel that unless there is a major shift in the mindset of the government and the Tigers, violence is the only way to go. “We need a change in thinking, we need words to be matched by action, otherwise, the same trend will hold,” Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, a pro-peace local lobby group, said. — IPS