Ethnic war ramps up in Sri Lanka

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BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka — The bitter ethnic war that has ravaged Sri Lanka for 25 years has entered a new and terrible phase.

Since 1983, Sri Lanka“s government, which represents the majority community, Sinhalese and Buddhist, has been battling the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which is seeking a homeland in the north and east for the Hindu and Tamil minority.

A cease-fire, brokered by Norway in 2002, promised an end to the violence that has claimed at least 70,000 lives. But the election of a belligerent Sinhalese-nationalist government in late 2005, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, stirred both sides to fresh atrocities. In the past 18 months, 5,000 have died; compared to fewer than 200 in the previous three years.

This conflict — which Sri Lankan pundits have called “Eelam Four,” as the fourth round in the struggle for a Tamil homeland, or Eelam — appears to be fought in two phases. It began in the east after a series of violations that included, last April, an attack on the army headquarters in Colombo which left the army commander, Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, with serious injuries.

In a vast offensive backed by heavy artillery, the army has largely cleared eastern Sri Lanka of the Tigers. The fighting has also displaced more than 150,000 civilians. Though some are returning home, many still languish in camps that dot the landscape.

Sundaralingam Raveendram fled his village in northern Batticaloa district in March. After settling his family in a camp in Palameenmadu, just south of Batticaloa city, the farmer returned home to fetch some cattle.

“Pieces from a shell hit me and I fell unconscious,” said Mr. Raveendram, standing outside the family”s temporary home, a small tent of white plastic sheeting, holding out his badly scarred arm. As he talked, the steady dull thud of artillery fire is a reminder that the eastern campaign is not over; the army is trying to bomb around 500 rebels from their last jungle hide-outs to the northwest and southwest of the town.

And an even nastier conflict is escalating in the north, the Tigers’ stronghold.

“We are pursuing a negotiated settlement,” said Kehilya Rambukwella, the government”s defense spokesman. “We have no plans to start a campaign in the north. We just want to release people from the clutches of the LTTE.”

But sources say that in recent weeks the army has made frequent attacks on the northern frontline and suffered heavy losses, as many as several dozen soldiers on some days.

“The battle in the north will be nothing like that in the east,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a group working for reconciliation. “It will be much harder.”

Whereas the east has a mixed population of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese; the north, the LTTE“s heartland and home, is almost entirely Tamil.

In the east, the army was further aided by the 2004 defection of the LTTE“s regional commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, known as “Colonel Karuna.”

Karuna, as his splinter group is known, has launched a series of attacks on the LTTE in the region.

Despite its apparent failures in eastern Sri Lanka, the LTTE has struck back. In March, its fledgling air force made its debut, bombing an air force base in Colombo, killing three airmen and wounding 16.

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