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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006, 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
Sri Lanka: war amid the ceasefire?

By Priyath Liyanage
BBC Sinhala editor

The government and Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka say that a ceasefire signed in February 2002 is still holding, despite a suicide bombing on Tuesday in the army headquarters in Colombo and subsequent air strikes by the military against rebel positions in the east of the country.

Army search in Colombo
Security has been tightened after the latest violence

Norwegian peace facilitators also insist the truce is still holding.

So when is a ceasefire not a ceasefire?

Most analysts agree that the suicide bombing bore all the hallmarks of the Tamil Tigers, and this combined with the air strikes has blown a gaping hole in the prospects for peace.

Both incidents were not random. They were pre-planned and sanctioned by the leaders of both sides.

Yet neither party wants to be the first to declare a resumption of hostilities because each side is no doubt concerned about the negative signals this may send to people at home and abroad.

Meanwhile a war-like situation exists on the ground.

Important implications

In the east thousands of displaced people are fleeing the air strikes, while in Sinhalese-majority areas security has been tightened due to the renewed threat of suicide bombings.

In fact the situation on the ground today bears startling similarities to the dark days of conflict prior to February 2002.

Tuesday's suicide attack follows on from a disagreement between the government and the Tamil Tigers over how rebel commanders in the east could be transported to the north for internal discussions prior to peace talks in Europe.

For the past four years, the government provided helicopters for Tiger leaders to travel, but earlier this month said it would instead take them by sea on board a naval vessel.

Tamil Tiger
Some argue that the Tigers need the threat of war

But the Tigers refused to travel with the navy and deadlock was reached. To the outside world, the position of both parties may seem trivial, but in Sri Lanka such seemingly petty disagreements can have important implications.

And it is in the east of Sri Lanka where things looks to be delicately poised at the moment. On the ground, the dissident Tamil Tiger commander, Karuna, continues to launch armed excursions into rebel-controlled areas.

The government agreed to disarm Colonel Karuna's paramilitary forces in the last round of talks with the rebels, but failed to do so.

They now say that his forces are operating inside Tiger administered areas, and are beyond their control.

'Final war'

These disputes, combined with recent violence, raise questions of the motivation of both sides. Do the Tamil Tigers really want peace? And is the government keen to continue with the peace process?

In the last election the narrow victory of President Mahinda Rajapakse was largely attributed to a voting boycott initiated by the Tamil Tigers.

It meant the defeat of the opposition leader, Ranil Wickramasinghe, who fought the elections under the banner of future federalism and the continuation of the peace process which was started by him when he was prime minister.

According to a recent report by the Human Rights Watch, immediately after those elections, the Tamil Tigers launched a campaign to fund the "final war".

President Mahinda Rajapakse
The president ordered air strikes but says he still wants peace

Such a declaration prompted some analysts to question the long term objectives of the rebels. They argue that the Tigers need the threat of war to justify their existence.

In the areas they control, public services, including health care, education and administrative services are financed by the government.

From the taxes they raise from the people, the Tigers only provide security. If the threat of war is taken out of the equation, some argue, the rebels might not wield as much power.

The new president - despite being branded a hardliner by critics - quickly got on with preparations for peace talks. Yet the military strategy of the government was kept alive as a means of putting pressure on the Tigers.

Many believe that Colonel Karuna is under the protection of the government and has been used by the security forces as a tool to create chaos in the East.

Descending into chaos

At the same time, some argue that the government is eager to please Sri Lanka's nationalist vote, which it needed to remain in power.

Showing a tough attitude towards the Tamil Tigers is a popular policy option in certain quarters of the Sinhalese community.

Fighters loyal to Col Karuna
The Tigers say that Col Karuna's troops are being used as a tool

Until these issues are addressed, a constructive round of talks may not be possible.

As a result, the no-war, no-peace situation may suit both sides, each keen to be seen as not giving too much away.

On the other hand, the recent violence may well set the scene for things to come. Both parties realise the country once again is at risk of descending into chaos, and in order to avert this a renewed commitment for peace may be found.

On Wednesday, the government offered sea planes for the eastern Tamil Tiger leadership. The rebels have now said that in principle they are prepared to go to Geneva.

From the despair of the latest bloodshed, hope remains that compromises such as this may pave the way for Sri Lanka finally to emerge from this protracted and drawn-out conflict.

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