- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka — Subedra pulled back the blanket covering his mother’s bloody corpse and kissed her face, wailing in grief. Elsewhere in the morgue lay his two children and a cousin — the latest victims of what many fear is a return to civil war.

With European peace monitors struggling to restart peace talks between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels, the recent surge in violence in Sri Lanka has shown the difficulties in finding a lasting solution to one of Asia’s bloodiest wars.

Last month, near-daily bombings and shootings the government blames on the Tigers killed more than 150 people.

Subedra’s relatives were killed by a roadside bomb May 1 that exploded as they returned from a market in Trincomalee, a port town at the heart of the recent fighting. The apparent target was a military patrol, and one navy officer was killed. But the motorized rickshaw carrying Subedra’s relatives took the force of the blast.

“My life is finished now,” sobbed Subedra, who only gave one name. “Nothing is important anymore.”

The rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam began fighting in the 1970s for a separate homeland in the north and the east, where most of the country’s 3.2 million Hindu Tamils live, complaining of discrimination at the hands of the majority Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhists.

The struggle intensified after anti-Tamil riots in 1983, and more than 65,000 people were killed before a 2002 cease-fire.

That truce is sagging under the weight of the near-daily violence. Its collapse would hurt the impoverished country’s economy — especially the tourist sector — and cut into efforts to rebuild after the 2004 Asian tsunami.

It would also send shock waves through neighboring countries, especially India, which has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and does not want more disorder on its doorstep.

Last week, relations between the government and rebels reached a new low after the government ordered air and sea strikes on rebel targets following a suicide bombing in Colombo that killed 12 persons and wounded the army commander. Authorities blamed the Tigers for the blast.

The emergence of a breakaway rebel faction in eastern Sri Lanka in 2004 has complicated efforts to maintain the cease-fire.

The Tigers accuse the government of supporting the group, known as the Karuna faction after its leader, in its attacks on their fighters and allowing it to operate in its territory.

The Tigers are demanding the government disband the breakaway group, which is thought to number fewer than 500 fighters, but poses a challenge to the Tiger’s claim to be the sole representative of the Tamils.

The Tigers are “presenting the government with a choice,” said Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, an independent think tank. “Either disarm the group or accept a very high and ongoing human cost. This is the dilemma for the government.”

Amid newspaper editorials calling on the army to destroy the Tigers and rising anger among the politically dominant Sinhalese, the fear now is the tensions will lead to a return to full-scale hostilities.

“There is a vociferous group from within the government that are saying it is better to go to war,” Mr. Perera said.

The rebels’ slick media unit routinely denies responsibility for bombings and shootings, noting that many victims are Tamils, like those in Monday’s bombing.

But senior police officers at the scene of Monday’s blast immediately blamed the Tigers.

“This is all part of their mission … to create a backlash,” said Police Chief Inspector Senanayake as officers picked through the debris. “If there is peace then they will get no international recognition.”

Despite the spike in killings, both sides say they remain committed to the peace process and have told the Norwegian-led monitoring mission they want to meet soon for talks in Geneva aimed at shoring up the cease-fire and finding a political solution to the conflict.

The tourist industry is just beginning to recover from the tsunami, which killed 31,000 people and devastated the country’s beach resorts. It now fears another setback.

“It would be a disaster,” said Shanta Navarathne, manager of a small hotel in Polonnaruwa, an eastern town rich in ancient temples but close to a rebel-controlled area. “We have already had a 50 percent drop in arrivals.”

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