Tensions Escalate as Rebel Deadline Expires in Sri Lanka

By Suryamurthy Ramachandran | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - A deadline, warning 40,000 trapped Sri Lankan troops to surrender or face a "bloodbath", ended Friday with the Sri Lankan government calling the threat "rubbish." The deadline had been imposed by Tamil rebels, who are fighting to secede from Sri Lanka, and who have had the Sri Lankan troops trapped for almost two months.

As soon as the deadline expired, the rebels announced a 12-hour cease fire, in which civilians would be allowed to flee the war zone in the Jaffna peninsula.

Indian officials also said "unofficially" that a US warship was heading in the direction of Sri Lanka.

Indian defense ministry sources confirmed the report, but a spokesman for the US Pentagon said the ship movement is part of a rotation of forces in the region and is unrelated to any ongoing situation in Sri Lanka.

Responding to questions about the reported US Navy movements, Indian Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh said the US had conveyed to New Delhi that it had no intention of taking any action in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar confirmed Friday that troops would not be withdrawn from the island's northern peninsula. In fact, Sri Lankan forces also began to bombard rebel positions, and the government issued an urgent public appeal for young people and retired soldiers to join the army.

"The retired officers will be posted in non-operational areas, thereby enabling [the army] to shift soldiers on security duty to combat zones," the appeal said.

The foreign ministry announced that US Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, who is in the region, will visit Sri Lanka on May 29.

An Indian defense analyst said that, by moving a ship toward the Sri Lanka periphery, the US was sending a powerful message. "The presence of these ships is likely to concretize Washington's [recently-enunciated] verbal support for Sri Lanka's unity and territorial integrity," said Ram Kumar.

He noted that Pickering had said earlier this week that the US intended to keep a close watch on the developments in Sri Lanka.