Steady violence raises fears of war in Sri Lanka
Sun July 2, 2006 11:38 EDT .
MATTHEW ROSENBERG - Associated Press Writer - BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka - (AP) Gunfire echoes nearly every night across the lagoon that rings this fishing town in eastern Sri Lanka - . Bodies turn up nearly every day in the jungles beyond, some riddled with bullets, others bound and gagged with a single shot to the head. Four years after a cease-fire raised hopes for peace between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels, Sri Lanka - is teetering on the brink.
Naval battles, suicide bombings and jungle clashes have once again become the norm on this tropical island that for two decades has been largely known for the ferocious ethnic struggle between its largely Hindu Tamil minority and predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
Still, the government and Tigers insist they are abiding by the truce, even as they settle into a pattern of attack-and-retaliation, with plenty of saber-rattling in between.
A ``low-intensity war'' is the favored description used by analysts and diplomats.
The Tigers and government ``are as far apart as they have been since the cease-fire,'' said Jehan Perera of the independent National Peace Council.
But what's perhaps even more dangerous is that the violence has pushed the Sinhalese and Tamils further apart. ``The polarization is greater than it's been in years,'' he said.
The roots of Sri Lanka - 's conflict stretch back to the years after independence from Britain in 1948, when the government made Sinhala the official language, gave Buddhism a prominent role and Tamils faced widespread discrimination in schools and jobs.
In 1983 the Tigers took up arms and a spasm of anti-Tamil violence sparked war.
Each side fought viciously: the Tigers used suicide bombings to eliminate their enemies; the government routinely detained and tortured Tamil civilians.
The death toll stood at more than 65,000 when the cease-fire was signed in 2002.
By then, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as the rebels are officially known, controlled wide swaths of the north and east where they run a de facto country, complete with border guards and traffic policemen.
They also lay claim to areas held by the government, like the northern port city of Jaffna, capital of an ancient Tamil kingdom.
But they deny being behind the recent violence a denial few here believe and say they only want a political solution.
The inner workings of the Tiger leadership remain a mystery to outsiders, and there's wide speculation about their motives for recent attacks, such as a June 15 bus bombing that killed 64 civilians, most of them Sinhalese.
Many say the Tigers are simply trying to push the government to grant broad autonomy over the territories they control. Others warn the rebels could be trying to weaken government forces ahead of the rainy season, which starts in August, when the government's armored vehicles would be bogged down in mud.
The government's motives are clearer it faces pressure from hard-line political allies, generals and Sinhalese nationalists to destroy the Tigers.
``The only sound they ever understand is gunfire,'' Bellanwila Amarasinghe, a Buddhist monk in Colombo, said of the Tigers.
But all-out war could scare off much-needed foreign investment and tourist dollars, which helped push economic growth to about 6 percent in the first quarter of the year. That's no small feat in a country still recovering from war and the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 35,000 people here and displaced a million.
Perera warned that unless both sides start talking, ``undeclared war could very easily become declared war.''
Such distinctions can seem semantic along the alleys of this ancient town, and in the rice paddies and Hindu temples that dot the countryside.
Sri Lanka - 's violence is perhaps felt nowhere as acutely as it is around Batticaloa, a largely Tamil city under government control just kilometers (miles) from rebel territory.
Soldiers here patrol in full battle gear, teenage rebels dig fresh fortifications, and a shadowy band of renegade insurgents a splinter group lurks in the jungles.
More than half of the nearly 700 people killed since April have been civilians, Nordic truce monitors say.
Fear of more killings keeps village streets deserted, and people use thinly veiled codes when talking about the factions ``elder brother'' being the Tigers, ``younger brother'' the renegades.
``We're all even afraid to walk out in the road,'' said Tevanayagam. ``We don't know what's going to happen or when it's going to happen.''
It is here the truce first began unraveling two years ago, when the renegades, led by a powerful eastern commander known as Karuna, walked out, only to be hunted down by the Tigers.
The few hundred renegades believed left regularly attack the Tigers, and diplomats and cease-fire monitors say they get at least some protection from the military, a charge the military denies.
Their latest assault came Tuesday, when they killed four Tigers, burning the bodies. They also planted a roadside bomb in early June that killed nine people, most of them civilians.
Both the Tigers and Karuna's loyalists are said to be behind a spike in abductions of children and young men a sign, aid workers say, that both could be preparing for war.
Both sides deny pressing anyone into service, although the Tigers have a well-documented history of forcing children to fight.
Exact figures are hard to come by, but UNICEF has said at least 50 children are among the scores who have been abducted by Karuna's faction.
The Tigers are also abducting people, villagers say.
A 47-year-old fisherman in Pasikuda, a village north of here, said one of his sons was taken by the Tigers last year. He asked that his name not be used fearing reprisals from the Tigers. He also said he doesn't want to attract attention to his two other boys.
The 19-year-old had fought earlier for the rebels before being released in 2004. But ``he's still young and strong and knows how to fight. Maybe that is why they took him back,'' the man said, clutching the laminated certificate the Tigers had given the boy when they let him go.
As for his other teenage sons, ``I almost never let them outside now.''
Nor do many other parents. Down the road, the village's cricket ground, ordinarily bustling with children, was empty.
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Published: Sun Jul 2 12:20:03 EDT 2006