New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - The United States has not ruled out the possibility of providing military assistance to Sri Lanka if the Sri Lankan government makes such a request, following its recent military setbacks at the hands of Tamil Tiger rebels.
Washington will consider any requests that may be made, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Karl Inderforth said in an interview with the Indian daily The Hindu, published on Thursday.
He was replying to a question on whether the U.S. would offer military aid if the Sri Lankan government's forces found themselves trapped in the north of the island nation, where the Tamil separatists are fighting for a homeland.
"No request has come from Sri Lanka for assistance of the United States," Inderforth said. "We are clearly concerned about the situation and as with other governments, including India, we will look at the requests if they are made. We would not want to see a humanitarian crisis unfold."
Indian political analysts say New Delhi should speed up its involvement as regional peace-broker, or face the likelihood that countries outside the region could take on the role.
"If India cannot act, extra-regional powers could rush to fill this vacuum," analyst Anand K. Sahay told CNSNews.com.
"For instance, after vacating Subic Bay in the Philippines and coming under pressure in Okinawa, the U.S. military could well want a long-term presence in Trincomale (in Sri Lanka), the best natural harbor in the world.
"If that happens, India's own position could be distinctively undermined."
Inderforth stressed India's role in the resolution of the Sri Lanka conflict.
"We believe that India is the key outside power and that anything to be done by the international community must be done very much with India."
Washington was aware of the legitimate interest that India had in Sri Lanka and respected that, he said.
The Clinton administration also recognized that the Indian government was "moving cautiously to determine the most appropriate role for India to play, and we certainly understand India's desire not to become involved militarily."
In 1987, India sent troops to help the Sri Lanka government crush an earlier Tamil uprising. Some 2,000 Indian soldiers were killed and thousands more were wounded in the fighting. India pulled its troops out in 1990.
India says it is ready to mediate only if both sides asked it to play such a role. Sri Lanka maintains that New Delhi has not officially communicated its willingness to mediate.
V. Gopalswamy, a member of the ruling coalition of the Indian government, sympathized with the Tamil aspirations.
"If [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat can get autonomy without any territory, why should the Tamils, who control so much territory and have the most powerful, dedicated liberation army in the world, not get a state?"
He said: "India should not in any manner get involved in maintaining the unity of Sri Lanka - that is the responsibility of the island government.
"If ... Sri Lanka remains one country, well and good. But if the Sri Lankan government fails to keep the island together, then it must accept that as well."
However, Inderforth stated categorically that the U.S. would not recognize a unilateral declaration of independence for Eelam, the proposed Tamil homeland.
"We would not, nor do we believe the international community would, recognize a unilateral assertion of independence.
He said the U.S. had long believed in the need for a negotiated political solution, one that would include constitutional reform and the devolution of power.
Washington believed Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's proposal for a political settlement would take into account the interests of all the Sri Lankans.
Inderforth said the U.S. supported continuing Norwegian peace initiatives.
Norwegian special envoy Erik Solheim has briefed American officials on Oslo's attempts to act as an independent broker, listening to both parties and trying to bridge their differences.
Inderforth announced that Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, who is visiting New Delhi later this month, also would go to Sri Lanka.
Tamils comprise 3.2 million of Sri Lanka's 18.6 million people. Although not all support the Tigers' extreme methods, many sympathize with the group's demand for a homeland.
The mostly Hindu Tamils accuse majority Sinhalese - most of them Buddhists - of widespread discrimination in education and jobs. The government denies the charge.
More than 60,000 people have been killed in the civil war since 1983. The group has also been blamed for the assassinations of former Sri Lankan president, Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.