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War to deepen before any new peace talks

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As Sri Lanka slides deeper into a new chapter of a two-decade civil war, fresh peace talks are a distant prospect until either the Tamil Tigers or the military gain the upper hand, analysts say.

President Mahinda Rajapakse is a majority Sinhalese nationalist who refuses to compromise Sri Lanka’s territorial sovereignty - and who must juggle the demands of hardline Marxist and Buddhist monk political allies who hate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

“I can’t see anyone getting back to peace talks until a clear change in the balance of power on the ground has been accepted, and likewise with the ceasefire,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a private think-tank.

“It has now come to a situation in which the only interaction they can have is on the battlefield,” he added.

Peace broker Norway was quick to play down expectations from the new visit by special envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer, who arrived last Friday to discuss the future of the island’s Nordic truce monitors.

“I don’t know what the hell Hanssen-Bauer is going to talk about,” Saravanamuttu said.

The government and the LTTE separately say they remain committed to a 2002 ceasefire, but truce monitors, diplomats and even some military officials say a war that has killed tens of thousands since 1983 has resumed to a greater or lesser degree.

Each side accuses the other of pulling out of the truce, and is keen to avoid blame for the collapse of the island’s protracted peace process.

“Now it has gone beyond the realm of a low intensity war,” said Iqbal Athas, an analyst for Jane’s Defence Weekly. “In my view, Eelam War IV has already started.”

“The confrontations are no longer isolated or focused on one particular area. Both in the north and east confrontations are widespread,” he added. “What is happening is no different to what happened during the other phases of the war.”

Athas saw the LTTE drive into government-held parts of the eastern Muslim town of Mutur, which has been flattened by artillery fire and whose tens of thousands of residents fled, as a plan to destabilise the east and choke the maritime supply route to the Jaffna.

Senior eastern LTTE political leader S. Elilan told Reuters in an interview this week the ceasefire was now null and void because of government air strikes on LTTE areas in a bid to settle a water supply dispute.

“The war is on and we are ready,” Elilan said. “The war has begun. It is the government which has started the war.”

“There are different definitions of war. And if you take the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, they say 500 killed in a year -- then there’s war,” said Major General Ulf Henricsson, head of the Nordic mission which oversees the truce.

“It’s still useful if the parties decide they want to talk, then you have the paper and you can go back to it. But just now we are far from a real ceasefire,” he added. “It still goes on, that low intensity war.”

Henricsson and mission staff from Sweden, Denmark and Finland is being pulled out by their governments after the Tigers gave members from European Union nations a Sept. 1 deadline to quit the island in light of a new EU terrorism ban against them.

That will cut the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission by two-thirds to just 20 people -- not enough to do the job properly. Analysts say it will leave a dangerous vacuum.

“I don’t think it is yet as bad as pre-2002, but it might develop into that,” said Sri Lanka’s military spokesman Major Upali Rajapakse.

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