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Friday, September 08, 2006

Sri Lankan Tigers say "vacate our land or it's war"

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers told the government on Friday to immediately withdraw from a rebel stronghold it seized this week or face war.

The army captured the territory on the southern edge of the strategic Trincomalee harbour in the northeast of the country on Monday after days of artillery battles. It was the first major capture of territory by either side since a 2002 ceasefire.

"We perceive the Sri Lankan armed forces occupying our territory as tantamount to a declaration of war," S. Puleedevan, head of the rebels' peace secretariat, told Reuters.

He said the Tigers would launch a counter-attack and "evict" the army from Sampur if it did not withdraw immediately, adding that the ceasefire agreement was "in tatters".

"The conflict is already widening all over the northeast, the Tamil homeland," Puleedevan said by satellite phone.

"So far, we have tried very hard to maintain restraint, not to launch offensive attacks, but there are limits."

Until now, and despite heavy fighting in recent weeks, the government and the rebels had been insisting that they continued to stand by the terms of a 2002 truce.

But the foes blame each other for trying to force a full-scale return to a war that has killed more than 65,000 people since 1983.

On Wednesday, the rebels' political chief met the Norwegian ambassador and mediator Hans Brattskar in the northern town of Kilinochchi and said the seizure of Sampur had "brought an end to the ceasefire agreement".

S.P. Thamilselvan was quoted by the rebels' Web site as saying that government bombing and shelling was putting minority Tamil civilians through misery and warning that the island's majority Sinhala population would "face the consequences soon".

His comments could be interpreted as a veiled warning that the Tigers will launch bomb attacks in the capital Colombo or elsewhere in the mainly Buddhist Sinhala-dominated south as they have in the past, often using suicide bombers.


The government says it was forced to take Sampur because the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had been using it to shell a naval base in Trincomalee and disrupt a maritime supply route to the besieged, army-held Jaffna peninsula in the north.

Nevertheless diplomats said it would be hard to imagine the Tigers returning to any kind of peace process unless they somehow regained control of the area.

"This is another blow in a series of blows to the chances of getting this (peace process) on track again," said one. "The situation is very bleak ... we may be in something of a quagmire."

There was some relief for Jaffna when a government ship arrived on Friday carrying 3,700 tonnes of food, medical supplies and some plastic sheets.

But the humanitarian situation there remains desperate, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which says the peninsula is "choking" because the two sides cannot agree on how to open access.

Meanwhile, food and petrol are in very short supply and prices have shot up.

"Please just agree, for the sake of the civilian population, on one or the other route, or even by plane," said Peter Krakolinig, deputy head of the ICRC mission in Sri Lanka. "We will then set in motion a pipeline of relief supplies."

Shelling from both sides has continued around Jaffna this week, forcing more civilians to flee their homes.

"We have not been able to sleep the last few nights," said Sundaram Nagarajah, a 45-year-old businessman fleeing the village of Mirusil with his wife and two children.

"My wife is scared and so am I. The children cry all the time. How long could we wait in fear?"
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