Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Sri Lanka's Tiger rebels face troops in rainy east by Peter Apps

PARATHIVU, Sri Lanka, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Wearing black ponchos against the rain and carrying AK-47 assault rifles, Tamil Tiger rebels man a checkpoint just a few hundred metres (yards) from Sri Lankan government lines.

In the aftermath of a 2002 ceasefire that halted two decades of war, Nordic truce monitors brought the opposing sides together for frequent meetings. But those have stopped now and civilians living on either side of the frontlines say they fear the future.

"Some people say there will be war some time next year," a young man told Reuters at a Hindu religious festival in Tiger-controlled territory in eastern Sri Lanka. "Some people say there will be a peaceful solution. We do not know."

Analysts and diplomats say negotiations are possible, but the gap between the two sides is vast.

The Tigers -- who want an independent homeland for the island's Tamil minority -- on Saturday rejected a government offer of peace talks elsewhere in Asia, saying they wanted to go through Norway as the peace broker.

Attempts to arrange new low-level meetings have failed and a series of attacks on troops and police blamed on the rebels have put the ceasefire under greater threat.

The rebels have denied they were involved in the attacks, including one in the northern Jaffna peninsula that killed 14 soldiers and a separate assault on a helicopter.

On Sunday, an army spokesman said the rebels had opened fire on a government checkpoint near the north-eastern port of Trincomalee, but there were no injuries and government troops did not return the fire.

Any conflict in the north might involve large-scale clashes, the army says. But in the east -- where the de facto Tiger state is patchy and split up by government-held roads and towns -- it is likely to be more "unconventional".

Hindu villagers in rebel territory are keen to talk on their way to temple -- but not about about politics or their feelings towards the island's Sinhalese Buddhist majority. FEAR AND DIVISION

With the rebels fighting in the area against a breakaway eastern faction, the Karuna group -- widely seen as government backed -- it pays not to talk.

Abductions and killings are frequent, and the bodies are laid out along the main army-held road to the east.

In the town of Batticaloa, dominated by army checkpoints, many residents refuse to acknowledge that they know of the existence of the Tigers or Karuna. The few who will talk say support for the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has eroded.

"The main problem here is the LTTE. They are bad for business," said a local waiter, who would not give his name. "Karuna is good man -- very intelligent."

Analysts say a Tiger boycott of a November poll that ruined the chances of a more conciliatory candidate and bought perceived southern hardliner Mahinda Rajapakse to the presidency was a sign that the LTTE might have tired of the peace process.

Some diplomats say the rebels will likely wait until the heavy rains end in the new year to make their next move. Others contend that the downpours provide ideal cover to move forces and are surprised the rebels are not already doing so.

Batticaloa saw a string of grenade attacks before the November poll, but since then the town itself has been quiet. Even so, aid workers say they are worried about rising tensions between Tamil and Muslim communities in nearby areas after a lethal grenade attack on a mosque in November.

"There have been a number of incidents that have caused concern," said Patrick Hamilton, of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ampara. "We are unsure where it is all leading."