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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 August 2006, 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK
The cost of Sri Lanka's water war
By Ethirajan Anbarasan
BBC News

After two weeks of intense fighting, water finally began flowing again this week in the Maavilaru waterway in eastern Sri Lanka.

Civilians displaced by Sri Lanka fighting
The fighting has forced thousands to flee their homes
For the time being, farmers in the government-held areas in Trincomalee district may heave a sigh of relief as the Tamil Tiger rebels have finally relented to lift the water blockade that has been at the root of their bitter fight with government forces in the region.

But the fear of a fully-fledged conflict developing if neither side backs down from their aggressive military postures remains.

The fighting was described by the rebels as an attempt "to highlight the Tamil civilian misery" and by the government as "a humanitarian mission to release water for civilians".

Claiming victory

According to various estimates, nearly 50,000 people have been displaced from the Muttur region, which bore the brunt of the fighting.

The rebels have shown their offensive and defensive capabilities... but their blocking of water has backfired on them
Analyst DBS Jeyaraj

Now the rebels say that over 40,000 people have been displaced from areas under their control because of the continuing shelling by government forces.

In the meantime, both sides claim victory.

The Sri Lankan authorities assert that they have beaten back the rebels from Muttur and have captured the Maavilaru waterway from the rebels.

The rebels, on the other hand, say they took the army head on. And they say they still control the waterway.

"The Tamil rebels have shown their offensive and defensive capabilities in this battle but their blocking of water has backfired on them," says Sri Lanka analyst DBS Jeyaraj. "It's not been good propaganda."

The Norwegian facilitators appeared to have achieved a breakthrough last week when they convinced the rebels to open the waterway.

Army tank
The army has been beaten back on a number of occasions

But the government's decision to bombard rebel positions, even as the ceasefire monitors and the rebels were trying to open the sluice gates, also came in for criticism.

"It is quite obvious they are not interested in water. They are interested in something else," Tommy Lekenmyr of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission was quoted as saying. "We will blame this on the government."

Despite claims by some Sri Lankan officials, reports from the ground suggested that the military was beaten back on several occasions when they attempted to capture the waterway, much to the embarrassment of the top brass in Colombo.

Counting the costs

The rebels proved that they could take on the numerically superior Sri Lankan army in a conventional battle even in the eastern region, which was considered as their weak link.

But thousands of civilians are still counting the costs.

Scores of civilians have died in the crossfire in the Muslim-dominated Muttur area and a large number have fled their homes. Reports said thousands of people, including women and children, were forced to walk for nearly two days without food and water.

While severely criticising the government for failing to protect them, many displaced civilians bitterly recount the harsh treatment meted out to them by the Tamil rebels.

Muslim leaders have also demanded the release of many of their community members allegedly detained by the rebels.

The Tigers have denied all these accusations. And they say they withdrew from Muttur town as they had achieved their objective of exerting military pressure on the security forces.

The Tigers have chequered relations with the Muslim community and they would have found it difficult to hold on to Muttur town which is dominated by the community.

Militarily the rebels have may have scored a point, but they have lost out on the support of the Muslim civilians in the region.

Meanwhile the fighting in the Maavilaru waterway area continues.

The Tamil rebels have already made it clear that any more attacks on them will be considered "an act of war".

What some analysts fear is that the rebels may end up opening new fronts elsewhere in the north-east to divert the military - and then the de facto war could become official.




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