April 24, 2006

Four die in Sri Lanka violence, ethnic fears rise

By Peter Apps

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Four people were shot dead in fresh Sri
Lankan violence on Monday, while the killing of six Sinhalese
farmers by suspected Tamil Tiger rebels the previous day raised
fears of more ethnic riots.

Some 100 people have died in just over two weeks after a
series of suspected Tamil Tiger ambushes on the military were
followed by attacks on Tamil civilians.

Both sides say they are still working toward talks that
were scheduled for last week in Switzerland, but are now
indefinitely postponed. But diplomats say the peace process
seems deadlocked and some fear a return to the island's
two-decade civil war.

In eastern Sri Lanka, troops shot dead two suspected rebels
setting up a fragmentation mine ambush, the army said. One
soldier was wounded.

An explosion in the northern town of Jaffna hurt no one,
but two Home Guard troopers were later shot dead in Vavuniya,
another own in Sri Lanka's north.

An army spokesman said troops had increased their presence
around the village where six farmers were shot dead late on
Sunday, in the northeastern district of Trincomalee.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), whose campaign
for a Tamil homeland has killed more than 64,000 people on both
sides, accuse the almost exclusively Sinhalese army of "ethnic
cleansing" in the island's northeast, as well as increasingly
frequent murders of Tamil civilians.

There is no doubt deaths are occurring, but analysts say it
is the Tigers who are deliberately provoking confrontation to
pressure the government in the knowledge that deeper ethnic
divisions will drive more Tamils to their side.


"They want to say to the Tamils, we are your protectors,"
said Jehan Perera, national director for think-tank the
National Peace Council. "And they want to create a Sinhalese
backlash that will ultimately help them."

In Trincomalee district, some Tamil villages are already
completely abandoned. Tamil civilians load their belongings on
to bullock carts, fleeing to schools or into LTTE territory
where they say they feel safer.

But the diplomatic process of bringing the two sides to
talks remains deadlocked over the much smaller issue of
arranging the transport of eastern rebel leaders to a pre-talks
meeting in their de facto capital, Kilinochchi.

The Tigers want a military helicopter to transport their
leaders; the government has offered first a ship, then a small
civilian helicopter, and now a larger civilian helicopter.

Diplomats say neither side has been flexible enough.

Analysts say the Tigers are frustrated by the government
failing to take any action promised at talks in February to
stop "armed groups" operating in its territory.

That was seen as a reference to renegade ex-rebels led by
former LTTE eastern commander Karuna Amman. The army denies
supporting him.

With war fears rising, the government is seen as unlikely
to take any action against a group that could be a useful ally
against the Tigers in the east.

"My guess is that the LTTE are not keen on coming to talks
which do not deal with their main concern, which is getting
Karuna disarmed," said National Peace Council's Perera.