President Mahinda Rajapakse yesterday called for immediate talks with the Tamil Tiger rebels to halt spiraling violence threatening Sri Lanka's four-year-old cease fire and taking the tropical island again toward the brink of war.
But in an interview, Rajapakse also had a warning for anyone who might take his wish for peace as a sign that the government was unable to take on the Tigers.
"Don't take my patience as my weakness," Rajapakse said, one day before Norwegian peace broker Erik Solheim was to arrive to try to bring the two parties back to the negotiating table.
"Let us sit down together and talk and from there we can pick the thread up and carry on," Rajapakse said, who won the Nov. 17 presidential election on pledges that he would not divide this island of 19 million people along ethnic lines.
About two weeks after Rajapakse won the election, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the reclusive rebel leader, announced that he would intensify the struggle for an independent homeland if the minority Tamils' grievances were not adequately addressed.
The rebels' Nov. 27 statement was followed by a sharp surge in violence, with suspected rebels attacking Sri Lankan security forces almost daily.
"Yes, 78 of our brave men have been killed by the LTTE," Rajapakse said of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam guerrilla force.
The rebels are considered a formidable military machine. They recruit boys as young as 13 and make members wear cyanide capsules around their necks so they can commit suicide if captured.
They run training camps and equip their 3,000-4,000 fighters, including women, with tiger-striped uniforms and sophisticated weaponry. They also have tens of thousands of sympathizers for their cause.
The rebels, who differ from the majority Sinhalese in language, culture and religion, have fought for almost two decades for an independent homeland in the northeast of Sri Lanka. The conflict has cost some 65,000 lives.