Sri Lanka could slip back to a protracted war within months unless the government agrees to revive peace talks based on a controversial rebel blueprint for self-rule, analysts said yesterday.
Tamil Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, in a hard-hitting speech broadcast over rebel radio on Saturday, said he was running out of patience and demanded an immediate end to the 19-month deadlock in Norwegian-backed talks.
"If the government of Sri Lanka rejects our urgent appeal and adopts delaying tactics, perpetuating the suffering of our people, we have no alternative other than to advance the freedom struggle of our nation," he said.
Former Tiger rebel turned politician Dharmalingam Sithadthan said Prabhakaran, who turned 50 on Friday, was sending a powerful message that he would resume his armed struggle for an independent state called Eelam.
"He does not want to use the word `war' because that may not be liked by the international community," Sithadthan said. "But, in his strong statement, he has issued an ultimatum to the government to choose war or peace."
Sithadthan said the country could slip back to war within months, ending an Oslo-arranged ceasefire that has been in place since February 2002, despite allegations of truce violation by both sides.
Peace broker Norway tried but failed to revive the faltering peace-talks process earlier this month, but managed to extract promises from the antagonists that they would honor the ceasefire.
However, tension has been mounting in the island's embattled regions with the Tigers and the defense ministry accusing each other of provocation to resume hostilities.
Diplomats and top military commanders said they were worried after Prabhakaran's annual policy statement, after honoring 17,800 of his war dead, that the situation on the ground could get out of hand.
Prabhakaran did not specify a time frame for returning to his "freedom struggle" nor did he set a deadline for the government, but Tamil sources said Colombo had about a "month or two" to respond.
There was no immediate reaction from President Chandrika Kumaratunga's administration but one of her ministers, Douglas Devananda, said Tigers should use the peace process for a political settlement and not return to fighting.
"Conditions are conducive for [minority] Tamils to win their demands through political negotiations," Devananda said. "Prabhakaran must make use of it rather than go back to war."
Devananda dismissed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) allegations that the coalition government had serious contradictions in dealing with the island's ethnic conflict which has claimed more than 60,000 lives since 1972.
"Whatever some coalition partners may say, finally it is the government which takes up a stand and all constituent partners are bound by that," Devananda said.
Prabhakaran urged the majority Sinhalese population to take a collective stand on peace talks and end what he called the internal contradictions within the Marxist-backed government.
"We are living in a political void, without war, without a stable peace, without the conditions of normalcy, without an interim or permanent solution to the ethnic conflict," he said.
"Our liberation struggle will be seriously undermined if this political vacuum continues indefinitely," he said while asking the president's coalition partners to declare their stand on talks and to push for the talks to continue.