Norway yesterday clinched a deal to end a deadly dispute over water in northeast Sri Lanka, but Tamil rebels warned of a return to full-scale war if the military launches new air or land campaigns.
An irrigation canal, which was at the root of the latest fighting that claimed at least 425 lives by official count, was to be reopened yesterday, rebel spokesman Dayanidi Velayadun said.
The rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in talks with Oslo's top special envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer agreed to release water to around 15,000 farming families in the northeast district of Trincomalee ending the two-week stand off.
Dayanidi said Norway will help supervise efforts to ensure a demand is met for a better water system in rebel-held areas of Trincomalee district where heavy fighting had raged since the military first carried out air strikes on July 26.
The Tigers also made it clear to Norway that any fresh air strikes or artillery attacks by security forces would be the end of a shaky truce in place since 2002 and would be regarded as Colombo's "declaration of war."
Hanssen-Bauer clinched the end to the latest fighting during two hours of talks with the LTTE's political wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan in the rebel-held town of Kilinochchi Dayanidi said.
Diplomats close to the peace process said the move was seen as a key breakthrough to end the bloodshed in the Trincomalee district where more than 20,000 people, mainly minority Muslims, were displaced by the violence.
Even as Hanssen-Bauer arrived in Kilinochchi, the Tiger rebels said they had pulled back to their original positions in the Trincomalee district.
"Our objective of the mission with a defensive character was accomplished and our forces returned to their positions as per the February 2002 ceasefire," LTTE military spokesman I. Ilanthiayan was quoted as saying by the Tamilnet.com Web site.
The military launched a ground offensive against the Tigers on July 31, but failed to capture the mini-dam at Maavilaru.
The guerrillas resisted and said residents closed the waterway to get the government to improve their drinking water supply inside rebel-held territory.
The rebels said 32 of their forces were killed during the weeks of fighting, far fewer than the 152 dead claimed by the defense ministry around Muttur on Friday alone.
Dayanidi said the LTTE asked Norway to also ask the government to withdraw troops from populated areas of the island's restive northeast to avoid further civilian casualties.