Sri Lanka Seeks Foreign Help to End Conflict

By R. Raghavendra | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

( - A raging war in Sri Lanka's northern Jaffna peninsula and recent gains of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have shattered a renewed push for peace in the Indian Ocean island.

The Tamil Tiger rebels have made significant military gains in the Tamil-dominated peninsula, driving the government troops out of at least half-a-dozen strategic positions.

On Monday the group offered to declare a temporary cease-fire if the government agreed to withdraw troops from the Jaffna area.

The rebels began their offensive a month ago when they captured the government's most highly-defended position, the Elephant Pass military complex. In a few days of heavy fighting a 3,000-strong rebel armed unit overran the Elephant Pass, defended by some 17,000 soldiers.

The rebels then advanced on other government bases and captured most of them along the coast, cutting off supply lines. More than 40,000 government soldiers are reportedly trapped in the peninsula.

The loss of Elephant Pass for the first time during the 17-year conflict was a major blow to the government. The setbacks have demoralized the armed forces and the country in general.

The Sri Lankan government, led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, is under growing pressure from the ruling People's Alliance as well as the opposition United National Party to seek foreign assistance to rescue the trapped soldiers.

Having failed to get assistance from neighboring India and other nations, the government last week announced it was resuming ties with Israel, broken off two decades ago.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington could provide humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka, if asked.

"We would certainly consider a request for humanitarian assistance," Boucher told a press briefing in Washington. "We have provided them in the past with certain military equipment as well, under careful review of human rights considerations.

"We've provided some military training in the past under our programs, following the same criteria. But in this situation, we've not been asked to provide any assistance in response to the current fighting."

Boucher said that the U.S. had encouraged Sri Lanka to re-establish ties with Israel.

Analysts say diplomatic ties with Israel have been restored to procure weapons. The Sri Lankan air force uses Israel-built Kfir jets to fight the rebels.

The latest conflict has jeopardized recently-renewed peace efforts.

Kumaratunga has been exploring constitutional reforms aimed at resolving the ethnic conflict by giving more autonomy to the Tamil-dominated north and east of the country. Norway had also made attempts to bring the government and the LTTE to the negotiating table.

"The recent developments are likely to develop a resistance towards talks with the guerrillas," Prof. S. B. Dissanayake, formerly of Colombo University, told

"The chauvinist elements in the majority Sinhala community are certainly against any talks with the guerrillas. They are opposed to Norwegian intervention in the crisis. This is going to worsen the situation."

A leading sociologist, who played a significant role in negotiations with the rebels several years ago, said the military reversals had forced the majority community to think positively about the talks.

"Flush with recent success, the rebels would like to negotiate from a stronger position," he said, requesting anonymity.

The rebel victory is expected to impact the outcome of the parliamentary elections scheduled for August this year. The opposition United National Party has blamed the government for the war losses.

The government is still hopeful that its efforts to find a negotiated settlement may prove successful.

While the Norwegian government is expected to facilitate talks between the government and the LTTE, India too has expressed its willingness to act as a mediator.

Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka say India's intervention would be more useful and effective than the Norwegian efforts, as India is in a position to exercise more pressure on the militants than any other country.

"India is our nearest neighbor. The LTTE clandestinely brings lots of supplies from India. If the Indian government desires it can resort to some arm twisting measures and force the LTTE to talk," said Douglas Devananda, secretary-general of the Eelam People's Democratic Party.

See earlier story:
Sri Lanka Lays Foundations for Peace Talks (March 9, 2000)