Sat, Jan 14, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Tamil rebels seeking leverage before talks

NEGOTIATING POSITION The Tamil Tigers haven't assumed responsiblity for a string of attacks, but analysts say they are using violence to try to strengthen their hand

AFP , COLOMBO

Tamil Tiger rebels, blamed for a series of deadly attacks on Sri Lankan troops, are battling to gain the upper hand over the military ahead of a new round of peace talks, analysts said yesterday.

The separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have remained quiet about the string of deadly attacks over the past month which have threatened a three-year-old ceasefire brokered by Norway.

But analysts see the attacks as an attempt by the Tigers to create a strong negotiating position, rather than a bid to reignite the island's civil war which has claimed over 60,000 lives since 1972.

"It seems the LTTE wants to speak from a position of strength when they go for talks," said Harry Gunatillake, a retired air force chief. "These attacks are not a sign that we will revert to war. But I think it is more of an indication that the Tigers want to go for talks from a position where they can call the shots."

The Tigers suffered an unexpected setback in March 2004 when a regional commander known as Karuna led a split from an organization which until then was known for its single-minded unity and ruthlessness towards dissent.

The mainstream LTTE has accused the Sri Lankan government of supporting Karuna's breakaway faction and encouraging the group to launch attacks, a charge denied by the authorities.

Diplomats associated with the Norwegian-led peace initiative believe the split may have partly prompted the Tiger leadership to escalate their attacks to reassert their military authority.

"Things will get worse in Sri Lanka before they get better," a Western diplomat close to the talks told reporters. "But, I also believe we will have talks and the climate will improve."

Norway's International Development Minister Erik Solheim is expected here on Jan. 23 to arrange the talks. The Colombo government said on Thursday it hoped that Solheim could break the deadlock.

As international pressure mounts on both sides resume talks which have been stalled since April 2003, the bloodshed goes on.

A mine attack against the navy killed 10 sailors on Thursday raising to 76 the number of troops and police killed in the upsurge in violence since early last month. Another 49 people, including rebels, have also been killed.

Sri Lanka yesterday accused the Tigers for a "blatant violation" of the ceasefire.

Tamil politician Dharmalingam Sidhathan said the attacks had virtually confined government forces to their barracks in the troubled northern regions, giving the Tigers better control over the local population.

He said the LTTE appears keen to re-establish control over the northern peninsula of Jaffna, the center of Tamil culture and the fountainhead of Tamil separatism.

"The LTTE is trying to take Jaffna by confining the army to barracks," he said. "We are going to see a situation we had in the mid 1980s when the army could not move about freely in Jaffna."

The Tigers ran Jaffna as a de facto separate state from 1990 until they were driven out by the military in a major offensive in December 1995.

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