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Hawks calling the shots in Sri Lanka: analysts

Sri Lanka’s ordering in of war planes and artillery to open a minor irrigation canal blocked by the Tamil Tigers is an over-reaction and a sign hawks are calling the shots, analysts said last week.

Analysts said the real reasons for the fierce fighting could run deeper than the government’s explanation that it has launched a “humanitarian gesture” aimed at ending the Tamil Tiger blockade of the Maavilaru waterway.

“Water is the life blood and very important, but could this not have been settled through negotiations without sending war planes,” former Sri Lankan foreign secretary Nanda Godage asked.

“The question that is now being asked is if this does not signal the hawks taking over the defense establishment,” Godage said. “This could lead to a full conflagaration and this becoming a prestige battle.”

He said President Mahinda Rajapakse himself has been calling for peace and that the military action went contrary to his public stance, giving the impression that some hardline elements may be exerting influence.

“None of the parties are interested in talks at the moment,” the chief truce monitor Ulf Henricsson said. “They are both over-reacting.”

He does not expect either to formally abrogate the February 2002 truce and revert to full scale war, and instead believes the parties are more likely to return to negotiations after a bloody round of fighting.

Former airforce chief Harry Gunatillake said that latest military action underscored the “gung ho” attitude of the government that underestimated the damage guerrillas could inflict on the military.

“We are going into deep water here. The government may have tanks, ships and aircraft, but there are other factors in a guerrilla war,” Gunatillake said.

“This will be an intensified ‘localised’ battle, but it will not spread.”

Relations between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government rapidly deteriorated with the election of Rajapakse last November.

The LTTE has officially described Rajapakse as a “pragmatic leader” but is wary of his main nationalist allies, the Buddhist monks and Marxists, who both oppose any power sharing deal with the rebels.

“The tough military line of the government is to appease the (Marxist) JVP,” Gunatillake said. “The president must tell the JVP to go to hell and start a process of negotiations.”

Troops began air strikes Wednesday July 26 and launched a ground offensive to open the waterway Monday July 31, with nearly 100 combatants killed so far on both sides.

“Very soon there will be more blood than water,” Gunatillake said. “The Tiger resistance shows that they don’t want the army coming into an area where they are in control. (The military action) is stupid. This is ridiculous.”

A diplomatic source close to the peace process said the military may have underestimated the rebel strength in the eastern province where the guerrillas suffered a split in March 2004.

“The government may have also wanted to show that the Tigers were weak in the eastern province,” the source said. “If the army fails to open the waterway, it will be a political setback.”

Escalation of violence in Sri Lanka has often been followed by a phase of negotiations.

There was a similar spurt in bloodshed before the two sides went to Switzerland in February for a face-to-face meeting.

Retired army brigadier general Vipul Boteju said the latest military action could bog down troops in hostile terrain and leave them exposed to guerrilla attacks.

“One thing is clear, neither side will say they are leaving the truce,” Boteju said. “The more they pledge to uphold the ceasefire, the more they will whack each other.”

Monitoring chief Henricsson said the ceasefire is barely holding, but all could agree that that there is too much violence, with at least 940 people killed since Rajapakse came to power.

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