Sri Lanka looks set for renewed civil war

The armed struggle in Sri Lanka may resume soon Keystone

A demining expert sent to Sri Lanka by the Swiss defence ministry predicts an imminent return to full-scale bloodshed in the civil war-ravaged country.

This content was published on January 5, 2006

Franz Baer, who was sent to the country to clear landmines, believes the situation could soon spiral out of control again.

Tensions between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebel forces have reached boiling point after the assassination of the country's foreign minister and the election of a new hard line president last year.

Five Tamil youths were killed in an explosion in the eastern town of Trincomalee on Monday following a string of attacks in recent weeks that have left 40 soldiers dead.

"There is definitely some kind of war going on at the moment which involves a lot of killing," he told swissinfo.

"Currently the potential for increased violence is very high in the hotspots of Jaffna, Trincomalee and Batticoloa.

Mounting tensions

"No one can say for sure what will happen next as the situation can rapidly go from one extreme to the other. But tensions have been going up and up and up recently."

Baer's comments have been echoed by the international observation mission in Sri Lanka, which warned this week of a return to civil war.

Tamil separatists, led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, first started an armed struggle for independence in the early 1980s. The violence claimed about 65,000 lives until a ceasefire was agreed in 2002.

But the tenuous truce has all but ended, after Sri Lanka's new president, Mahinda Rajapakse, failed to meet a Tamil deadline of January 1 to renegotiate terms.

"There is a big gap between the two parties and they don't even have a starting point for peace talks," said Baer.

Return to war?

"The tsunami [in December 2004] made a bit of difference because it hit mainly Tamil areas, but we are now coming back to a war situation."

Baer fears that his work for the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, which employs around 100 locals in Sri Lanka, will come to an end if the violence escalates.

"We are not working in a hotspot region, but grenade attacks and killings are a normal daily occurrence," he said. "Some of our local workers feel unsafe and are already leaving.

"If re-mining happens then we will have to suspend or stop our work. I don't know how long our donors [the governments of Switzerland, Australia and Japan] will continue to give funds.

"The only hope is for the situation to improve because if we have to stop it will have devastating consequences."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

Key facts

The civil war in Sri Lanka has already claimed around 65,000 lives.
A ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers was negotiated in February 2002, but since 2004 there have been around 200 political assassinations.
A bomb blast in Trincomalee on Monday killed five Tamil youths.

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