Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels will return to war unless progress is made soon in the island's deadlocked peace process, a senior rebel said just days ahead of Norwegian peace broker Erik Solheim's visit.
Solheim has warned the island not to expect much from a visit aimed at saving an almost-destroyed 2002 ceasefire. But, like the rebels, government soldiers in the Tamil-dominated north and east say they believe war could come in days if he cannot at least get the sides to agree a venue for talks.
"If nothing happens in the peace talks, war will start," S.S. Elilan, Trincomalee district political leader for the Tamil Tiger rebels, said through a translator late on Friday.
"If there is no solution, we cannot stay in this situation for much longer," he said, sitting under a tree in his headquarters in Sampoor, near army lines.
Rising violence has led to international truce monitors questioning whether the Norwegian-brokered truce is holding at all. Each side says the other is trying to provoke them into restarting the two-decade-old conflict that killed more than 64,000 -- this in a region that suffered huge casualties in the 2004 tsunami.
The rebels deny responsibility for a string of lethal strikes on military personnel patrolling areas adjacent to a de facto Tiger state across a large swathe of the north and east, but few believe them. Elilan said the attacks had been by a civilian "third force" angry at alleged mounting army abuses.
He said the government had begun attacking the rebels first through its own third force, a breakaway eastern Tiger faction they say is now government-backed and led by former rebel commander Karuna Amman.
"The peace has gone," Elilan said. "We are ready at any time to start the war."
If it comes, military sources predict an offensive towards the army-held Tamil city of Jaffna, but with other guerrilla actions elsewhere and suicide speedboat attacks on naval shipping from the key Trincomalee base. Elilan would not comment on what could happen.
"You will have to wait and see," he said, switching easily between the Tamil words for "if" and "when" as he discussed possible future conflict.
Around Trincomalee, hundreds of Tamil civilians say they have fled their homes fearing a further rise in violence and military retaliations against them should any attacks occur in their neighborhood. Distrust between communities is rising.
"Muslim people are becoming afraid of Tamils and Tamils are becoming afraid of Muslims," said 33-year-old farmer Hussain Junaideen, whose Muslim family is one of 370 who fled their village near the front-line after one of their community was shot.
The Muslims say they will ask the government for weapons if war starts. The Tigers say this is already happening, and villagers from the Sinhalese majority, which dominates the army, are also being armed.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's business leaders asked the government yesterday to turn the country into a de facto federal state in a bid to end the ethnic bloodshed.
The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce said the Indian federal system of government should serve as a model for devolution of power.
"Maximum devolution of power based on the Indian model which is not constrained by definitions of a united or unitary state has been proposed," it said in a statement.
"This we believe is a constructive way to harmonize various views on this complex and sensitive issue," the chamber said.