Page last updated at 17:20 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Quick guide: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is located about 31km (18.5 miles) off the southern coast of India. For much of the last 20 years it has suffered fighting between the armed forces of the predominantly Sinhalese government and Tamil Tiger rebels who want an independent homeland in the north and east.

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic country, with a population of 18m people. It is an ancient centre of Buddhism. It also has a significant number of Hindus, Christians and Muslims and smaller communities such as the Burghers and the Veddas.

The civil war has killed about 70,000 people, displaced hundreds of thousands and held back the island's growth and economic development.

Quick guides are concise explanations of topics or issues in the news.

The origins of the current violence go back to the island's independence from Britain in 1948.

Although the years immediately following the end of colonial rule were largely peaceful, from the outset there were tensions between the majority Sinhalese community - who are mostly Buddhist - and the Tamil community who are mostly either Hindu or Roman Catholic.

The communities speak different languages - Sinhala and Tamil - and both claim their ancestors were original settlers on the island.

Sri Lanka map

While the island's population has what is arguably the highest per capita standard of living in South Asia, in the years after independence the Tamil community complained of discrimination when it came to getting jobs in the civil service or winning places at universities.

The government argued it was redressing the imbalance from colonial times when Sinhalas accused the British of giving preferential treatment to Tamils.

The run-up to war

Resentment over perceived discrimination was cited by the Tamil Tiger leader, Prabhakaran, as the motivating factor behind his decision to form the Tamil New Tigers militia in 1972. In 1976, this body changed its name to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.

The cause of "Eelam" - a Tamil homeland in the north and east - has been invoked to justify countless suicide bombings by the Tigers on civilian and military targets.

One of the first such attacks was ordered by Prabhakaran in 1983, when the Tamil Tigers attacked an army patrol in the north of the country.

That in turn led to anti-Tamil riots in which an estimated 600 people were killed and thousands displaced.

Pattern emerges

From that moment onwards, it can be argued that the Sri Lankan conflict followed a pattern.

Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and for parts of this decade, the country has witnessed a combination of Tamil Tiger suicide attacks on the one hand and repeated military skirmishes in the north and east on the other.

The violence over this time has been interspersed by various international efforts to negotiate a peace settlement.

The country was dealt a further blow when the 2004 Asian Tsunami killed more than 30,000 people.

But the conflict escalated sharply when in 2008 the government formally pulled out of a ceasefire brokered by Norway six years earlier. Fighting had been going on despite the truce and each side accused the other of breaching the ceasefire.

Both the military and the Tamil Tigers have been frequently accused of gross violations of human rights by international rights groups.

Civilians have been routinely murdered and the situation has also been complicated by the existence of shadowy paramilitary groups.

Can either side secure a military triumph?

Most of Sri Lanka is now under government control after advances in the east in 2007. This was helped by the earlier defection of a group of rebels led by the LTTE's former eastern commander Colonel Karuna.

The government has said it is poised to capture Kilinochchi, the rebels' de facto capital in the north.

But analysts say the fall of Kilinochchi will not necessarily mean the end of the conflict. The rebels have ceded territory in the past only to win it back later. They have also shown their ability to fight a tenacious guerrilla war. Many expect an increase in suicide bombings.

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Unless common ground can be found between the government's oft-stated position that it is only prepared to allow more autonomy for the north and east and the Tiger's desire for full-scale independence for these areas, a lasting solution to this most intractable of disputes looks as far away as ever.

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