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Last Updated: Monday, 20 November 2006, 18:11 GMT
A year of misery and violence
By Ethirajan Anbarasan
BBC News

Victorious poll winner, Mahinde Rajapakse
The president came to power saying he would strengthen law and order
When Sri Lanka chose a new president and a new administration a year ago, some hoped that the change could bring new thinking and a new approach in solving the ethnic conflict.

Though considered a hardliner, President Mahinda Rajapakse was viewed by moderate Tamils as a pragmatist who had the potential to evolve a consensus by convincing the majority Sinhalese community to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

But many of his supporters argued that while the president - elected on 18 November 2005 - would pursue the peace process, he would also adopt a hard-line approach towards Tamil Tiger rebels.

The dramatic escalation of violence in the past year - and the subsequent change in perceptions of both the Sinhalese and Tamil sides - appear to have taken the country back to the position it was in prior to the signing of the February 2002 ceasefire agreement.

Deliberate provocation

According to official figures, more than 3,000 people have been killed in the last year - including civilians, soldiers and rebels. While those figures are the source of some dispute, events on the ground suggest that the war-ravaged country may well be sliding back into full-scale conflict.

So what has gone wrong?

Aftermath of an attack on a convoy of buses in Sri Lanka
Violence has escalated over the past year

"The militaristic approach of the government seems to have eroded the confidence of even moderate Tamils," says Sri Lankan analyst Yuvaraja Thangaraja.

But the government offers its own justifications for military action.

Within weeks of the new president taking office, a series of claymore mines exploded in the northern part of the country killing scores of soldiers.

Many viewed this as a deliberate provocation which could have forced the new leader to withdraw from the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement.

To its credit, there was no knee-jerk reaction from the new government. But when the violence escalated and civilians also became targets, the international community stepped in to arrange talks in Geneva in February 2006.

However, both sides reneged on their promises made in Switzerland. There were allegations that the security forces were actively aiding and abetting paramilitary groups, including those of the renegade Tamil Tiger commander, Colonel Karuna, in the eastern region.

The colonel's forces increased their attacks on Tiger bases, a tactic that annoyed the rebel leadership.

Retaliatory air attacks

Few people believed rebel denials that they were not behind the claymore attacks and they too were seen to have failed to live up to promises made in front of international facilitators.

In reality, both parties were waiting for the other to be the first to take the significant step of formally withdrawing from the 2002 agreement.

So while the ceasefire nominally at least remained in place, the violence continued in earnest, rendering it to all intents and purposes null and void.

Rajapakse supporters at the time of his election win
The euphoria of the president's election win has now passed away

A suicide attack on the army commander, Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, led to the army launching retaliatory air attacks and artillery barrages.

This was followed by naval battles and counter attacks by both sides.

Thousands of trapped civilians suffered, and hundreds were reported killed. More than 200,000 people were displaced because of the violence. Most of them are still languishing in makeshift camps and in open areas.

The prospects for peace were only made worse by the decision of the European Union (EU) to place a ban on the rebels.

The rebels responded by refusing to co-operate with EU ceasefire monitors on the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) who were forced to withdraw.

Some say this significantly eroded the SLMM's peace monitoring efforts.

'Gross ceasefire violations'

Muslim civilians in the eastern town of Muttur bore the brunt of the fighting as thousands were forced to leave their homes. The rebels were accused of driving the Muslims away.

But the government, too, came in for criticism over the killing of aid workers in Muttur town.

For the first time since the signing of the ceasefire agreement, Sri Lankan forces captured territory from the rebels and the front lines shifted in the north.

"Both sides were committing gross ceasefire violations. In fact, the tit-for-tat attacks of each protagonist steadily eroded the ceasefire agreement," says Helen Olafsdottir, an SLMM official.

The coffin of pro-Tamil MP Joseph Pararajasingham
Both sides have been accused of carrying out violence

Analysts say that the best hope for peace now lies in the hands of the government: if it can come up with a political solution in the near future, further deterioration of the situation could be prevented.

The government for its part says the agreement between the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the main opposition United National Party (UNP) is a crucial step in proposing long-term solutions to the ethnic conflict.

They hope that in the coming months they will indeed be able to put forward a political package.

But the government, which appeared to have strong international support until recently, has now come under increased scrutiny.

The recent bombing of civilians in the east, the shortage of food in the north and the east and the accusation of a senior UN official that some elements of the security forces were involved in forcefully recruiting child soldiers for the Karuna group seem to have worked against the government.

The Tigers too are accused of continuing with their killings and indulging in forceful child recruitment.

But perhaps the most worrying aspect of Sri Lanka's decline over the past year is the plight of civilians in the north and the east.

Conditions for them have significantly deteriorated, and many now are literally living in terror.

Distressingly for them, neither side appears to have focused on the issue, and an end to their suffering does not look to be immediately on the cards.

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