Sri Lanka's four-year old ceasefire is now void and the island's two-decade civil war is back on, a top Tamil Tiger rebel told reporters yesterday as the guerrillas and the military entered a sixth straight day of fighting.
S. Elilan, head of the Tigers' political wing in the restive eastern district of Trincomalee, said army troops had resumed a bid to advance towards land they control in the east and had fired artillery and mortars at their territory in the north.
"The ceasefire agreement has become null and void at the moment," Elilan said by telephone from Trincomalee, adding that government troops were continuing an advance toward their forward defense line in the east in a water supply dispute.
"The war is on and we are ready," added Elilan. "The war has begun. It is the government which has started the war ... Militarily, we have decided to fight back if the Sri Lankan army enters our area."
Elilan is not the Tigers' main spokesman, but he is one of their top officials and their political head in Trincomalee. He has repeatedly warned of a return to war.
The Colombo stock market was 1.5 percent lower in midday trade in the wake of the Tiger statement and fresh violence, said Eranjan Kulatunga, an economic analyst at brokerage C.T. Smith.
The rebels, angry at President Mahinda Rajapakse's outright rejection of their demand for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in the north and east, have pulled out of peace talks indefinitely and have been cranking up the rhetoric for months.
The Tigers say Sri Lanka's air force killed 15 rebels in five days of aerial bombing in the east and injured several others. The military said the death toll was much higher.
The army says that it has sustained no new casualties, despite becoming bogged down in a minefield on Sunday as they tried to reach a sluice they accuse the Tigers of blocking to choke water supplies to Sinhalese farmers in government territory.
The government says troops are still trying to clear the mines in their first open advance on rebel-held areas since the 2002 ceasefire, and face intermittent firefights. They say they have purely humanitarian goals but that the Tigers have simply gone too far.
"Under international law, denial of water is a crime and people have gone to the gallows for less," said head of the government peace secretariat Palitha Kohona. "The government says categorically that it is totally committed to the ceasefire. But the most important thing is to provide water for 50,000 people."
But Sri Lanka's government said yesterday that it has no plans to withdraw from its ceasefire with Tamil Tiger rebels despite a regional Tiger leader declaring the accord dead because of air and artillery assaults on rebel territory.
The army forces in northeastern Trincomalee made slow progress in their assault, which the government called a humanitarian mission aimed at ending a rebel blockade of water supplies.
Meanwhile, the rebels opened a new front by shelling government positions across their front lines in northern Jaffna Peninsula.
But the military said they killed the attackers.
"The Sri Lanka army successfully repulsed [rebels'] 81mm mortar fire ... killing four [rebel] cadres today," the military said on their Web site. The military suffered no casualties.