Steady violence shifting into 'low-intensity' war in Sri Lanka

Monday, July 3, 2006

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka -- Gunfire echoes nearly every night across the lagoon that rings this fishing town. Bodies turn up nearly every day in the jungles beyond, some riddled with bullets, others bound and gagged with a single shot to the head.

A year ago they called it a "Shadow War." Not anymore.

"Our war is again coming out in the open," said Tevanayagam, a 44-year-old fisherman, who like many here uses only one name.

Four years after a cease-fire raised hopes for peace between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels, Sri Lanka is teetering on the brink.

The brink of what remains the question.

Naval battles, suicide bombings and jungle clashes have once again become the norm on this tropical island that for two decades has been largely known for the ferocious ethnic struggle between its Hindu Tamil minority and its Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

Still, the government and Tigers insist they are abiding by the truce, even as they settle into a pattern of attack and retaliation, with plenty of saber-rattling in between.

A "low-intensity war" is the description favored by analysts and diplomats.

The Tigers and government "are as far apart as they have been since the cease-fire," said Jehan Perera of the independent National Peace Council. "The polarization is greater than it's been in years."

The Tigers still want to capture Tamil areas held by the government, like the northern port of Jaffna, capital of an ancient Tamil kingdom.

They also deny being behind the recent violence -- a denial few here believe -- and say they want a political solution.

The inner workings of the Tiger leadership remain a mystery to outsiders, and there's widespread speculation about their motives for attacks such as a June 15 bus bombing that killed 64 civilians, most Sinhalese.

Many say the Tigers are simply trying to push the government to grant broad autonomy over the territories they control. Others warn the rebels could be softening up government forces ahead of the rainy season, which starts in August, when the government's armored vehicles would be bogged down in mud.

The government's motives are clearer -- it faces pressure from hard-line political allies, generals and Sinhalese nationalists to destroy the Tigers.

"The only sound they ever understand is gunfire," Bellanwila Rathana, a Buddhist monk in Colombo, said of the Tigers.

But all-out war could scare off much-needed foreign investment and tourist dollars, which helped push economic growth to 6 percent in the first quarter of the year. That's no small feat in a country still recovering the war and the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 35,000 people here and displaced 1 million.

Perera warned that unless both sides start talking "undeclared war could very easily become declared war."

Such distinctions can seem semantic along the alleys of this ancient town, and in the rice paddies and Hindu temples that dot the countryside.

Sri Lanka's violence is perhaps felt nowhere as acutely as it is around Batticaloa, a largely Tamil city under government control just miles from rebel territory.

Soldiers here patrol in full battle gear, teenage rebels dig fresh fortifications and a shadowy band of renegade insurgents lurks in the jungles.

More than half of the nearly 700 people killed in Sri Lanka since April have been civilians, Nordic truce monitors say. Fear of more killings keeps village streets deserted, people use thinly veiled codes when talking about the factions -- "elder brother" being the Tigers, "younger brother" the renegades.

"We're all even afraid to walk out in the road," Tevanayagam said.

It is here the truce first began unraveling two years ago, when the renegades, known as the Karuna faction, broke away, only to be hunted down by the Tigers.

The few hundred renegades believed left regularly attack the Tigers, and diplomats and cease-fire monitors say they get at least some protection from the military.

The latest assault came Tuesday, when they killed four Tigers, burning the bodies.

Both the Tigers and Karuna also are said to be behind a spike in abductions of children and young men -- a sign, aid workers say, that both could be preparing for war.

A 47-year-old fisherman in Pasikuda, a village north of here, said one of his sons was taken by the Tigers last year. He asked that his name not be used fearing reprisals. He also does not want to attract attention to his two other boys.

His 19-year-old son had fought earlier for the rebels before being released in 2004. But "he's still young and strong and knows how to fight. Maybe that is why they took him back," the man said.

As for his other teenage sons, "I almost never let them outside now."

Nor do many other parents. Down the road, the village's cricket ground, ordinarily bustling with children, was empty.

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