Starting all over again

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

An offensive by the Sri Lankan security forces in Jaffna peninsula comes to a sorry end, and the process of negotiations between the government and the LTTE seems to be on shaky ground again.

WAR and peace. Sri Lanka see-saws between the two with such clockwork regularity that astute observers can now even predict when exactly the fulcrum will turn.

So there was no great surprise, only a sense of hopelessness, when a process for negotiations (too early to call it a "peace process") between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that was being cautiously constructed by Norway suddenly gave way to an outbreak of fierce hostilities between the two sides that killed at least 300 combatants and left hundreds more wounded.

A military offensive launched by the security forces in the early hours of April 25 in Jaffna peninsula proved disastrous as it met with fierce resistance from the LTTE. After facing a barrage of artillery and mortar fire for three days, and suffering hundreds of landmine casualties, on April 28 the security forces decided to cut their losses and pull back. At least 200 soldiers had been killed and more than 1,000 wounded. The LTTE has admitted to having lost 75 cadres, but the security forces said the Tigers had lost at least 190.

As Norwegian special envoy Erik Solheim flew into Sri Lanka in the wake of the bloodbath, a question mark hung over the prospects for negotiations between the two sides. Talks had seemed imminent just a month earlier, but it was not so after this.

To recapitulate events since last October: after President Chandrika Kumaratunga's People's Alliance wins the general election, the Norwegian special envoy returns to Sri Lanka and pulls off a meeting with LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran, which in itself is held to be an indication of his willingness to participate in peace talks.

Later that month, Prabakaran declares himself ready to hold "unconditional" talks with the government though he lists as "essential prerequisites" for such talks the gradual de-escalation of the conflict leading to a cessation of hostilities and the improvement of living conditions in LTTE-held areas by means of the lifting of government restrictions on the free flow of essential articles.

The following month, the LTTE unilaterally declares a Christmas-Pongal truce which seems aimed to avert an impending proscription in the United Kingdom. The government turns down the LTTE's call to reciprocate the ceasefire and instead launches a series of limited offensives in Jaffna peninsula. There is no resistance from the LTTE, and the security forces walk through a large swathe of land they had lost last April. They finally stop 15 km north of Elephant Pass and set up new defence lines across the neck of the peninsula from Eluthumadduval to Nagarkovil.

The government declares that the LTTE had become too weak to fight back, but warns that it is re-arming itself during the unilateral truce and forcibly recruiting cadres to come back on the security forces.

But the military offensives cool off just as it is anticipated that the security forces might make a push for Elephant Pass. The LTTE extends its ceasefire for another month. The British government proscribes the LTTE, which had had an active organisational presence in that country, in February.

Contrary to threats that if proscribed by the U.K. it would pull out of the Norwegian-assisted process, which has by now progressed to a stage where Solheim is trying to get the two sides to agree to a set of confidence-building measures (CBMs) to create conditions for talks, the LTTE elects to stay on in the process. The ceasefire gets its second extension and then a third, with the government still refusing to reciprocate, but keeping its side of the hostilities to the minimum. Solheim declares this to be an encouraging and positive sign for the process.

Come April, and the stage is believed to be set for talks by June. Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar announces in Parliament that the government would be ready to give out dates and a venue for talks by the end of the month.

That did not happen. Instead, a full-scale battle, initiated by the government side, erupted at the end of the month, and even though Solheim has declared the process to be still alive, it seems uncertain and on shaky ground again.

Except for the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), which views talks with the LTTE with suspicion, mainstream Tamil parties reacted with outrage to the renewed hostilities and accused the government of squandering an opportunity for peace. "I said from the beginning that the government should reciprocate the LTTE's ceasefire and begin talks quickly, that it would be impossible for the Army to make an advance on Pallai, 10 km north of Elephant Pass and the LTTE's heavily guarded forward post, leave alone Elephant Pass. Now they have learnt it the hard way," said V. Anandasangaree, parliamentarian and vice-president of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).

The security forces launched the offensive hours after the LTTE ended the four-month ceasefire around midnight on April 24, citing the government's refusal to reciprocate as the main reason for its decision not to extend it again.

The week before had seen two confrontations between the Navy and the LTTE in Sri Lanka's northeastern waters. The Tigers are believed to have suffered heavy casualties in both the battles. In the second, the Navy took alive nine cadres who were floundering at sea. They were transported to Trincomalee.

During the weekend of April 21-22, when it was expected that the LTTE might announce a ceasefire extension, the security forces began shelling LTTE positions near Eluthumadduval and Nagarkovil.

THE LTTE's decision to end the ceasefire might not have been such a big setback in itself. After all, it only did away with a problematic unilateral gesture that was viewed with suspicion by the government from the beginning. There was some hope that it even gave Norway the chance to build a proper bilateral ceasefire.

But for that to happen, it was crucial that both sides showed restraint. After the ceasefire lapsed, there were fears that the LTTE might resume terrorist strikes in southern Sri Lanka and armed offensives in the northeast, but it was the government that blinked first.

Operation Agni Khiela was led by two divisions of the Army and appeared to be aimed at capturing Pallai. The 55 Division broke out of Nagarkovil, while the 53 Division, comprising the elite "Special Forces", began to advance from Eluthumadduval, covered by tanks and artillery and supported by the Air Force and the Navy.

It appears that the LTTE entrenched itself in the middle of these two columns and bombarded both flanks with its own artillery and mortar power. Soldiers were felled by the LTTE's improvised landmines as they scattered for cover. On April 25 alone, 160 emergency amputations on soldiers were performed in Jaffna. The casualties were too high for the security forces to sustain the offensive and the decision was made to pull back to pre-April 25 positions. By dawn on April 28, the operation had come to a sorry end, leaving behind uncomfortable questions about its timing and advisability.

The military claimed that by carrying out the offensive it had pre-empted a massive strike planned by the LTTE on its defence lines the next day. It said the LTTE had been preparing for this by re-arming itself through the period of its unilateral truce.

DESPITE the fact that the LTTE has yet to shed its image as a terrorist group, most of the world, even New Delhi, now sees talks with it as the only way out of the conflict for Sri Lanka. The Norwegians were close to getting the two sides to agree on a set of CBMs that, if implemented, would set the stage for talks. The LTTE had refrained from carrying out terrorist strikes, while the government had loosened restrictions on the flow of goods to the north, although not to the extent to which the LTTE desired. The LTTE released four people whom it had been holding captive for several years.

A demand raised by the LTTE that it should be de-proscribed by Sri Lanka, though projected as a "pre-condition" for talks, was seen as something that could be taken up after talks started.

But the renewed fighting has led to worries that if the fighting spins out of control, it could take the Norwegian efforts back to where they were in June last year. There are fears that the LTTE will try to press home its success in the battlefield by going on a military counter-offensive of its own. Solheim's trip to Sri Lanka seemed aimed to prevent precisely that.

A statement from New Delhi on the eve of the Norwegian envoy's arrival expressing concern at the escalation of hostilities and the loss of life and calling for early talks between the two sides, was seen as strengthening his hands in this task.

It is unclear yet what course of action the LTTE will take now, but its military victory is bound to make it a tougher negotiator, even in the pre-talks stage. It is evident, however, that Solheim will now have to begin all over again to close the gap of mistrust and suspicion between the two sides.

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