Sampoor (Sri Lanka), Feb 28: A senior leader of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels has said further negotiations with the government will be pointless if Colombo does not act on pledges made at peace talks in Geneva last week.
The government has committed "to ensure that no armed group or person other than government security forces will carry arms or conduct armed operations", which the Tigers interpret as a vow to disarm a breakaway faction they say are attacking them.
The rebels also want the army, almost exclusively made up of majority Sinhalese, to stop search operations, review security measures and checkpoints to prevent harassment of the civilian population and ease fishing restrictions, all of which the government is committed to do under the original truce.
"If they don't implement what they agreed, there's no reason to talk again and again", S S Elilan, the Tamil Tiger political head in the northeastern Trincomalee district, told Reuters outside his headquarters yesterday night.
"Otherwise, it's no use. Time is running out". Until a ceasefire in 2002, the Tigers and government troops fought a bloody civil war for 20 years in which at least 64,000 people died. A string of attacks late last year brought the island nation to the brink of renewed conflict, but tension and violence fell after the two sides agreed to meet in Switzerland.
At last week's meeting, the first high level talks since 2003, the government and the Tigers issued a joint statement and agreed to meet again in April.
In January, former fighter Elilan kept his pistol belt near behind him while he talked to Reuters, but yesterday he left it back in an office building. Speaking through a translator, he said the Tigers followed Chinese revolutionary icon Mao Zedong's diktat to always keep war in their minds when talking peace, and keeping peace in mind when waging war.
"Before the talks, I thought that war would return", he said, a guard in tiger-striped fatigues standing behind him, AK-47 at the ready. "After the talks, I think it is much more likely that peace will come. But if they want to start the war, we are ready. This situation cannot hold for a long time". Elilan's eastern headquarters of Sampoor lies in a small dusty town only a couple of miles from a landmined no-man's land on the southern edge of the key navy-held port of Trincomalee, scene of killings blamed on both sides.
In Geneva, both sides committed themselves to respect and uphold the original ceasefire agreement.
The Tigers pledged to take all necessary steps to stop attacks on the army although they still deny being behind them to begin with. The government pledged no armed group would carry arms or conduct armed operations in military-held territory.
The rebels say that amounts to a promise to disarm fighters led by breakaway eastern rebel commander Karuna, who split from the Tigers in 2004. Officials deny Tiger allegations they are using Karuna to attack the rebels, and have said he is not on their territory.
On Sunday, Karuna said he would not give up his arms and would fight the mainstream Tigers if provoked. Elilan, one of a string of Tamils given senior positions in the east after the Karuna split, raised doubts about the reliability of Tigers from the east, said the army must act.
"We have proof he is in government controlled areas", he said, sipping orange squash bought to him by another rebel. "If Karuna says he won't put up his arms, the government must go and find him and take his arms from him". Elilan said it would be up to reclusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran whether the Tigers would attend the next round of Geneva talks if there was no public disarming. But if the Karuna group again clashed with the mainstream rebels, there could be serious trouble.
"The government has to take action (to ensure) that such an incident does not happen", he said. "Earlier, when this happened, we kept quiet. But in future, we will not be like that".