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Page last updated at 16:25 GMT, Friday, 17 October 2008 17:25 UK

West urged not to ignore Sri Lanka

By Ethirajan Anbarasan
BBC News

Some of the 200,000 Tamils displaced in the north
The 200,000 Tamils displaced in the north are increasingly hemmed in

A senior western diplomat has warned that living conditions are deteriorating for tens of thousands of civilians displaced inside Tamil Tiger rebel-held areas in northern Sri Lanka. It is a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen, he says.

"We have one of the biggest humanitarian problems emerging in the north at the moment. Unfortunately it's not attracting enough international attention," the diplomat, who's familiar with the Sri Lankan situation, told the BBC.

Sri Lankan security forces are carrying out a multi-pronged offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels in the north and some army units are reported to be very close to the town of Kilinochchi, where the Tamil Tigers have their administrative headquarters.

The United Nations says more than 200,000 people have been displaced in the latest round of fighting and they have been moving from place to place inside Tamil Tiger-controlled areas.

With the army capturing more and more territory from the rebels, the civilians have now been confined to a smaller region. Sooner or later hostilities are expected to break out in areas not very far from them. Some fear that they might get caught in the crossfire.

The diplomat, who didn't want to be identified, said Western governments had lost interest in Sri Lanka because "they think that there is little value of going back to the peace process because they are not sure whether the rebels will negotiate in good faith".

Political threat

With the international community showing little interest in the Sri Lankan conflict, the Tamil Tigers now appear to have turned towards their supporters and political parties in neighbouring India to bring about a ceasefire in the island nation.

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Pro-rebel political parties and some fringe groups in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu have been holding protest rallies against the Sri Lankan army offensive claiming many Tamil civilians are being killed in the conflict.

Sri Lankan officials deny the charges, saying they are only targeting the rebel fighters.

Tamil Nadu is home to more than 60 million Tamils, who share close linguistic and cultural ties with the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Most of the major political parties from Tamil Nadu have warned that their lawmakers will quit the Indian parliament if Delhi fails to broker a ceasefire in Sri Lanka. If the threats were carried out they could trigger a political crisis in Delhi.

But these protests are viewed by some as an attempt by the pro-rebel groups to try to protect the Tamil Tigers, who appear to have been cornered by the Sri Lankan security forces in recent months.

India has been pursuing a hands-off policy in Sri Lanka since the assassination of the former Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, allegedly by a female Tamil rebel suicide bomber in 1991. However, it actively backed the Norwegian-led peace process, which was officially called off early this year.

Officially, India wants a negotiated settlement within a united Sri Lanka, knowing that any fragmentation of Sri Lanka could have serious ramifications for its own security. If Delhi attempts to exert any pressure on Colombo it is bound to trigger an angry reaction from hard line political parties in Sri Lanka.

So the protests in Tamil Nadu may not result in a major shift in India's Sri Lanka policy as Delhi's options appear to be limited.

"The rebels seemed to have made a miscalculation on when and how India will intervene. I don't see any chance of the conflict ending in the next few weeks," the western diplomat said.

'Better strategy'

The Sri Lankan military would also stoutly oppose any move to stop the offensive which seems to be going in their favour.

Troops advance on Kilinochchi
The military says it is closing in on Kilinochchi

Analysts say the military's numerical superiority, stronger firepower and better military strategy have helped them to push rapidly deep inside rebel-held territory in recent months. But their progress has been slow in recent weeks due to stiff resistance from the Tigers.

Many military observers agree that if the present trend continues then the army will capture Kilinochchi sooner or later.

The fall of Kilinochchi would deal a significant blow to the Tamil Tigers. Militarily, Kilinochchi will also open the gates to strategically important areas like Paranthan and Elephant Pass, the strategic land bridge leading to the Jaffna Peninsula.

If the army achieves its objectives, then the rebels would be confined mostly to the Mullaitivu region.

Now the fear among the Tamils is if the rebels are weakened then the government may not show interest in devolving powers to Tamil areas.

"There is a danger that there will be little pressure on the Sri Lankan government to devolve powers to Tamil regions if the rebels lose the war," says Sri Lankan analyst DBS Jeyaraj.

However, he argues that the fall of Kilinochchi may not be the end of the rebels as most of their weapons and cadres are still intact and they may be gearing up for a long, drawn-out guerrilla war.





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