A strike called by Tamil Tiger rebels shut down two northern districts and severed road links yesterday in an apparent protest against alleged police excesses, a day after the government rejected the guerrillas' demand to unconditionally restart peace talks or risk a resumption of civil war.
The Tigers' chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, said during his annual policy address over the weekend that negotiations should resume immediately or he would revert to his "freedom struggle" -- an apparent reference to the brutal two-decade civil war the group waged before a ceasefire in 2002 halted the fighting.
Sri Lanka's Defense Ministry said road links with the north remained cut off after rebels closed entry points.
"Thousands of people are stranded, some of them needing medical care," Defense Ministry spokesman Brigadier Daya Ratnayake told reporters in the capital, Colombo.
Between 12,000 to 15,000 people use the road, a major supply route to the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula that is overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The Defense Ministry said it was watching the situation in the districts of Vavuniya and Mannar where the strike has brought normal life to a standstill, residents reached by telephone said. The Tamil-dominated districts are traditional rebel strongholds.
"We are keeping close watch and it is peaceful," Ratnayake said.
The Tamil Tiger rebels have been fighting since 1983 to carve out a separate state, accusing the majority Sinhalese of discrimination against minority Tamils.
Yesterday's strike was the second called by the rebels since the weekend. A similar strike in the port city of Trincomalee left three people dead and strained the fragile ceasefire.
The military says the rebels are deliberately creating tension.
Relations between the rebels and the government further soured on Saturday when Prabhakaran said that if the government rejects his appeal for immediate peace talks "we have no alternative other than to advance the freedom struggle of our nation."
He stopped short of directly saying that hostilities could resume. But even as he called on the government to hold unconditional talks, he set his own terms for the negotiations, saying they should be based on the rebels' self-rule plan. That proposal calls for a largely independent territory for Tamils, with control over its own administration, police and legal system, unrestricted access to the sea, and the right to collect taxes and receive direct foreign aid.
The government reacted by chastising the rebels for their "threatening language." The government also said the talks should involve "exploring a permanent settlement. "