Frayed truce

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

The April 25 attack on the Army chief has cast a shadow on the fragile peace process in the country torn by years of civil strife.

BY V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

"No type of terrorism will frighten me... I emphasise and caution that one should avoid mistaking our desire for peace and our responsibility to achieve it as a government as weakness."

- Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse (Address to the nation, April 25, 2006).

ON April 25, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) pushed the Sri Lankan peace process over the edge. It deployed its deadliest weapon - the suicide bomber - and took its separatist war deep inside the Sri Lankan establishment: the premises of the Army Headquarters.

The woman suicide bomber's target, Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka, the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, survived the attack, but the peace process suffered serious damage. A direct outcome of the failed mission was that the terms of engagement between the government and the Tigers have changed.

The April 25 attack has been the biggest test so far for President Mahinda Rajapakse after he was elected to office last November. Hours after the attack on Fonseka, the Sri Lankan armed forces started what they called "a limited operation" by way of "deterrent strikes" on "identified LTTE targets" in eastern Sri Lanka. The aerial attacks by the Sri Lanka Air Force that were part of the "deterrent strikes" have ended for now, but the message is clear. The period of impunity the LTTE enjoyed with the Sri Lankan government is now over.

If that was the message from Colombo, the LTTE also had a message or two of its own. The first was contained in its modus operandi of the strike, which is new and hitherto unheard of - choosing the Army Hospital's Maternity Day to deploy a woman who either passed off as an expectant mother or, even more appalling, was a pregnant suicide bomber as some media reports assert.

The attack also reveals the extent to which the rebels have infiltrated the city. The Army Hospital is located inside the tightly guarded Army Headquarters complex and access to it requires prior clearance. As every Tuesday is set apart for maternity care for soldiers' wives, pregnant women are not frisked, military sources said. The bomber, identified as a Tamil woman named Anoja from the northern Vavuniya district, had visited the hospital for at least three weeks prior to the attack.

Having gained entry to the premises, she waited for the moment when Fonseka's car approached the hospital. As she moved towards the vehicle, an alert motorcycle outrider spotted her suspicious movements, turned his bike towards her and kicked her aside. Seconds later she exploded. "This is what saved the Army commander as the direction of the blast was deflected to a certain extent," an officer at the Army headquarters told Frontline. The outrider was among the nine people who died on the spot.

Fonseka, an infantryman who had fought many a battle, mostly in Sri Lanka's northern theatre, was rushed to the National Hospital in Colombo. His condition was declared "stable".

Stability is now a distant prospect for the fragile ceasefire that has held for more than four years. The LTTE's choice of its target indicates that the peace process and a return to negotiations is not on its agenda. If provoking the government was one of its main aims, it scored an initial point when the government responded. Hours after the suicide bomber struck, the Sri Lanka Air Force took to the skies and turned towards rebel-held Sampoor in the eastern Trincomalee district. The government's position was that the LTTE had attacked the Navy and the strike was a "deterrent" against further such strikes.

Panic gripped Sri Lanka as the "deterrent strikes" by the government were the first since the February 2002 ceasefire agreement. The "limited operation" continued the next morning and was then called off. That was a major step to defuse the looming crisis, but the message that the government would not be a silent spectator to LTTE strikes had been delivered. On the night of the suicide mission, Rajapakse made it clear - in word and in deed - that he would not give in to terror. Even as the aerial strikes were under way, he went on television to address an edgy nation.

The President said: "Friends, no type of terrorism will frighten me. Similarly, I and my government will not be brought to our knees by whatever challenge that we face. I emphasise and caution that one should avoid mistaking our desire for peace and our responsibility to achieve it as a government as weakness."

The attack on the Army commander, he said, made it "patently clear that the need of the LTTE is not to settle disputes through negotiations". It was also "abundantly clear to the international community today that the response of the LTTE to the peaceful appeals by our government to settle disputes through negotiation is the use of the suicide bomb attack", he said.

Rajapakse emphasised that the LTTE was attempting to stir communal passions. "What the LTTE attempts to achieve by intensifying these attacks, while grossly violating the ceasefire agreement they are still said to be bound by, is to bring about a clash of a communal nature among the Sinhalese and Tamil peoples," he said.

Urging for calm and restraint, the President said: "It is the strategy of the LTTE by this means to change international opinion that is now unfavourable to them, to be in their favour. Therefore, I make a fervent appeal to all our people not to take the law into their own hands, and in anyway give cause for such a communal clash."

There has been international condemnation of the attack on Fonseka. India called it a "brazen act of terrorism". Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee spoke to Rajapakse and conveyed India's condemnation. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the "atrocious suicide bombing" and called upon the government and the LTTE to "summon the political will to resume their dialogue under the facilitation of the Norwegian government".

The international attention on Sri Lanka and the global opinion on the conflict and its resolution are key factors that will determine the manner in which the island nation emerges from its latest crisis. April had started with the promise of a second round of negotiations between the government and the LTTE to discuss implementation of the ceasefire agreement in Geneva. By the end of the month, the agreement was in tatters. As a tenuous ceasefire continues to hold, it will be eastern Sri Lanka which will ultimately determine if the island nation will make peace with itself.

For months the LTTE has been spoiling for a fight. It provoked the security forces through a string of claymore attacks. Days after it attacked Fonseka, the LTTE went back to its old and prime target - its former special commander for Batticaloa-Amparai, V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna). On the midnight of April 30, its cadre launched an offensive on three camps housing Karuna's supporters along the border of the eastern Batticaloa district. There are conflicting figures on the number of casualties, but the LTTE was signalling that it would continue to keep the Karuna issue as its central focus. It was the main talking point in the first round of negotiations in Geneva in February.

Even before the attack on Fonseka, the LTTE pulled out of the Geneva talks citing two reasons: sea transportation of its cadre between the north and the east and "normality" in the north-east. As rebel-controlled northern and eastern Sri Lanka is separated by government-held territory, it used to be the practice of the government to provide air transport for LTTE cadre to travel to and from the north and the east to attend meetings with the leadership.

The government recently decided to decline this facility, saying that its terms had changed after last year's assassination of Foreign Affairs Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The LTTE protested and said it would use its own sea transport to move between the north and the east. The government objected to this as the sea was under the control of the Navy. A standoff between the two resulted in the LTTE unilaterally suspending participation in the Geneva talks.

Central to the LTTE's game plan is its old strategy of allowing negotiations only when it sees itself in a situation of advantage in the military sense. Clearly, the eastern crisis triggered by Karuna's revolt has altered its military position. In addition, the international bans on the LTTE - the latest being the Canadian one - and the looming prospects of a ban by the European Union do not place it in a comfortable position.

Hence the current return to the militarist mode. By sustaining its attacks on the armed forces, it hopes to provoke the Army into retaliatory strikes. More attacks in the northern and eastern parts of the country are not unlikely in the coming months. The attack on Fonseka signalled that the LTTE had expanded its theatre of operations, opening up the possibility of multi-location strikes.

Meanwhile, hectic efforts are on to ensure that the stalled negotiations are brought back on track. The government has now offered sea-plane transport facilities to the LTTE to ferry its leaders between rebel-held territories in eastern and northern Sri Lanka.

But Rajapakse's moves to secure a southern consensus will be critical. The fundamental divergence of opinion between the unitarist government and the separatist LTTE is a key issue that will have to be addressed if there is to be any meaningful negotiations.

There is also international pressure on the two sides to resume negotiations. As a solution to the conflict requires a negotiated political settlement the role of the international community to ensure that the peace process stays on course gains more importance.

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